In preparation for this event, today I was reviewing some literature about positive reinforcement and motivation. Anybody interested in psychology knows that there is a raging ongoing debate about it. Even though the battle lines are not so clearly drawn, for the sake of simplicity we can say that on the one hand we have many psychologists saying that giving rewards actually reduces intrinsic motivation – therefore it is an ill-advised attempt at increasing motivation (see Lepper et al.,1973, Curry et al., 1990, Deci et al., 1999). This position is based on a seminal study by psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene from Stanford and the University of Michigan, masterfully told here. On the other hand we have economists saying that we are rational agents and therefore giving rewards is an effective way of increasing motivation.
The controversy is well alive within psychology, too – with some authors (Martin, G., Pear, G., Behavior Modification, 8th eds, p.38) saying that “Some individuals (e.g. Kohn, 1993) have gone so far as to suggest that tangible rewards should never be given because, for example, if a parent gives a child money as a reinforcer for reading, then the child will be less likely to “read for reading’s sake”. However, a careful review of the literature on this topic and two recent experiments clearly indicate that such a view is a myth. Moreover, the notion that extrinsic reinforcers undermines intrinsic interest flies in the face of common sense”.
The good news is that soon we might have a definite answer to the question of whether rewards work in motivating people (or at least, students), thanks to programs that reward AP scores being carried out in schools in different cities, like Dallas and New York, and financed by private groups. As the Harvard University economist Ronald Freyer, who is designing and testing several reward programs, says: “we either get social science or social change, and we need both.”
The preliminary results of these school reward programs are pretty good: “about two thirds of the 59 high-poverty schools in the Sparks program – which pays seventh-graders up to $500 and fourth-graders as much as $250 for their performance on a total of 10 assessments – improved their scores since last year’s state tests by margins about the citywide average”, with gains in some school approaching 40 percentage points (source).
As the critics of these programs are quick to point out, it is too soon to draw conclusions: typically rewards work in the short term but backfire in the long term. We’ll see.
My take on the debate whether rewards are helpful or actually hurt intrinsic motivation is: it depends. I don’t think such a question is amenable to a simple yes or no answer. Contextual factors play a large part.
For example, in the original study by Lepper et al., where the question was whether giving rewards would increase children’s motivation to draw, the 51 pre-schoolers chosen were all interested in drawing. Of course this was a crucial requirement if we want to investigate intrinsic motivation – yet it is often lost in the heat of the debate about rewards. Rewards might backfire for motivating people already interested or proficient in one activity, but what about getting somebody to start doing something?
Also notice how the study has been interpreted in literature and passed on in psychological lore: rewards hurt intrinsic motivation! Actually, the study showed that an unexpected reward (surprise reward) works better than an expected reward AND no reward.
Morevoer: the reward in this instance was a tangible reward (a certificate with a gold seal and a ribbon – this was the pre-ipod era!). What about social or other kinds of rewards? And in case of social rewards, we know (see a previous posting of mine on Carol Dweck’s work) that the way praise is formulated is of critical importance.
Let’s look at the reward programs being implemented in the schools. I think other important social dynamics are at work here, like competition and peer-pressure. And we know how peers are important in shaping who we become (see J.R. Harris work). For example, giving money for academic achievement can shift in dramatic ways youth’s attitudes and, all of a sudden, make studying “cool” – and this can be a big boost to motivate kids to learn, especially for minorities that tend to conform to negative stereotypes. Get rich or die tryin’ gets a whole new meaning!!
Update: Professor Steven Reiss on The Myths of Intrinsic-Extrinsic Motivation in Psychology Today, posted on the 20th of November 2009