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Do rewards really work?

Scientific research indicates that using rewards to control behaviour may not provoke the desired response in our children. What is more concerning is that rewards can actually undermine future behaviour? With Psychologists highlighting that a child’s motivation to repeat a task is lowered if they have received a reward for the task initially. This knowledge is leading many to question their widespread use.

Many studies have found that behaviour modification programs are rarely successful at producing lasting changes in attitudes or behaviour. When the rewards stop, people usually return to the way they acted before the program began. Researchers have discovered that children who are regularly rewarded tend to be less generous than their peers (Fabes et al., 1989; Grusec, 1991; Kohn 1990).

In one study, children were introduced to an unfamiliar drink called kefir. Some children were just asked to drink it and others were praised for drinking it; a third group was promised treats if they drank enough. Those children who received either verbal or tangible rewards consumed more of the beverage than other children, as you might predict but one week later these children found it significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas children who were offered no rewards liked it just as much and even more than they had earlier (Birch et al., 1984).

Sarah Ockwell-Smith of gentle parenting explained that Rewards do not teach children “right from wrong” or help them to develop morals, they merely result in compliance. You can view a reward as a bribe, if you no longer bribe them they won’t behave in the way you want.

In my book ‘How to teach behaviour and how not to’ I discuss the impact of rewards. When my son Max was 7 years old he walked into his classroom and his teacher responded with “That’s lovely walking Max, you can have a sticker!” Max responded, “I didn’t walk into the classroom to get a sticker, I walked into the classroom because that you are supposed to do”. I was proud that Max responded in this way because this highlighted that my son was more intrinsically motivated than extrinsically motivated. This was reinforced recently when I was at I was at a race meeting. Max races karts 2 or three weekends and month and was surprised to hear a driver coach tell a child that if he finished in the top three he would get £20. I asked Max for his views on this this and he explained the reward for finishing in the top three is how proud you would feel because you finished in the top three.

In education rewards are used extensively for a whole range of reasons. Max was rewarded for walking into the classroom, just last week I observed a teacher reward a child with 5 minutes’ extra playtime getting 20 out of 20 in a spelling test. It was a shame that the child was the only one to get 20 out of 20 because he spent 5 minutes alone wondering around the playground aimlessly. I spoke to the child later that day and he explained the he is not going to try so hard in next week’s spelling test because he would rather be in class learning.

If we want to create adults who are intrinsically motivated we need to be extremely careful when using rewards. For a real change to take place we need to work with a child’s intrinsic / internal motivation.

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