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Can We Justify Using Rewards?

This is what long summer evenings are all about. A lovely summer salad for dinner, followed by some games and eventually relaxing on a couch enjoying conversation with friends. As can often be the case for conversations involving me, the topics of discussion tended towards parenting, learning, and philosophy. One of the things I am most curious about is the topic of external motivators; in this case, it was the issue of rewards.

Using rewards is so commonplace that it seems rather radical to question them. And yet, question them I have. But is there still a place for them? Could we do away with them entirely? Would we even want to if we could?

So as we sat around and talked, a few examples came up regarding the use of rewards. For instance, somebody recalled a time where they were hiking with their family. One of the children in the family were also very young. She was struggling to make it up the mountain. And so the father offered a jellybean as an incentive for the child to walk to the next corner.

Now, it was undoubtedly effective in motivating the child to complete the walk. And this was important because the goal was to reach the hut by nightfall. So I understand why someone would use such a method. It seems like the most natural thing in the world.

But just because it is such a commonplace thing to do, it doesn’t negate what research says regarding the use of rewards. Using rewards creates extrinsic, not intrinsic, motivation for doing something. It is a method of control that focuses the receiver of the reward on the reward itself rather than the activity.

Rewards follow a basic formula of; “If you do this, you’ll get that.” It asks people to value the ‘that’ part of the equation more highly than the ‘this’ part. For example, I could say, “If you do the dishes, you’ll get a sweet.” What I am saying is that getting a sweet is more valuable than doing the dishes. Also, I am lowering any potential enjoyment from the activity of washing dishes. I have phrased it in such a way that doing the dishes is just a means to an end and cannot be enjoyed for its own sake.
Research has shown that even a single use of rewards, while heightening a person’s desire to do the activity in the current moment, does lower their motivation from their initial state of motivation to do that activity if the rewards are not present.

One example is a piece of research that was conducted by Mark Lepper of Stanford University. Lepper and his colleagues gave fifty-one preschoolers a chance to draw with Magic Markers. Some of them, however, were told that if they drew pictures with the markers, they would get a special certificate with a ribbon and a gold star. Between one and two weeks later, the children were observed in the classroom. Those who had received the certificate now seemed less interested in drawing with the magic markers than the other children. They were also less interested than they had been before the reward was offered.

As a former classroom teacher, I often used rewards, although I certainly didn’t know then what I know now. For a long time, I was a teacher with a ‘lolly jar’ on my desk. I would hand out sweets for children to do various work. But, it often didn’t take too long before the class would become all about, “What is the next way we can get Mr Frank to give us another sweet?” I found myself in situations where I was handing out more and more sweets until it got to ridiculous levels, and I would scrap the ‘lolly jar’ idea for a time. By the time I left teaching, I had dropped the ‘lolly jar’ for good although I didn’t understand the reasons why handing out sweets was so counter-productive to learning.

Rewards sap our enthusiasm for an activity when the rewards are no longer present. If we’re going to use an external control, we need to be aware of this and take responsibility for what we’re doing. Everything that we do has an effect. In nature, there is no such thing as because you did something “only once” that therefore that action is not beholden to the same principles and physical laws as subsequent actions are. The law of gravity effects as much the first time you jump off the cliff as it does the tenth time.

Now in the case of the external control in the hiking situation, I don’t think people should beat themselves up over it. You were tramping, and you needed to get to the hut. You did whatever was necessary to get you there. The more under stress you are, the more likely you will resort to more manipulative tactics to get the job done. From a practical standpoint, it is understandable.
However, as with so much of life, it is not the making of mistakes that is the problem. It is the acceptance of a mistake and making it the norm that is the problem.

The thing to realise is that you resorted to an external control. Questions worth asking after this happens are: How did I get myself into a position where I felt it necessary to resort to an external control? What can I learn and do differently next time? Maybe I over-estimated my child’s stamina? Perhaps I didn’t leave enough time so that my child could complete the hike? It is the starting conditions we must consider if we don’t want to end up in a particular situation in the first place. Indeed, the thing not to do is to think, “Oh I’m going to do more of these hikes, and as long I take a good stash of sweets with me I’ll be able to bribe my child into doing anything.”

I noted earlier that when we are under stress, we may find ourselves resorting to using rewards. Still, even in these situations, there may be better options if you're willing to get creative. Let’s take another look at our hiking example. It looks like you will not make it to the hut before you run out of daylight given the pace that your child is walking. What are some options available to you? You could ask yourself whether it is possible to walk in the dark for part of the way. Would it really matter if you arrived a bit late? Do you have torches to make sure you are safe along the way? Or could you carry the child if they are small enough?

Another thing to do in a situation like this is to bear in mind what some of our primary desires are as humans. The truth is that we all struggle with difficult things in life, but they can become more bearable if our other desires are met.

One of these fundamental desires is the desire to be social. In the hiking example, a child is more likely to walk if other people are walking with them. It becomes far harder for the child if they are just walking alone. Companionship is a strong motivator although I realise in and of itself, it may not be enough of a motivator to get you to the hut before nightfall.

A second motivator is having conversations. Last year I went for a reasonably substantial walk with a couple of children who hadn’t done much walking before. They found the hike rather difficult, so we made up stories as we walked. They were fun, creative and interactive stories that we all enjoyed. This simple act was enough to take away much of the focus on the difficulty of walking and place more weight on enjoying time together.

Now, this is not to say that one shouldn’t take any sweets along on a walk. But there is a difference between saying “Looks like you’re a bit low on energy. How about we have a sweet to boost our energy levels?”, and, “If you walk solidly for the next 10 minutes, I’ll give you a sweet.”
In the first option, you are simply recognising a need and offering something, not as a reward, but just to help. The second option is a direct use of bribery. Notice also with the second option the command to “walk solidly” is quite subjective. You may find that the child will then push the boundaries of what it means to “walk solidly”.

In conclusion, the costs associated with rewards are a lot higher than we think. The good news is that there are many other options to consider before rewards. So maybe, just maybe, it is time to start the journey of walking away from the use of rewards for good.