Science Confirms It: People Are Not Pets

“Science confirms it: people are not pets” is the title of a recent article in the NYT by Alfie Kohn, the author of “Punished By Rewards” and other books (Oct 25, 2018, SR p 10).

It is one of the most common misconceptions about human behavior, that rewarding a behavior will lead to increases of the behavior.  The misconception comes from the abmiguous meaning of the word “reward” and what “common sense” tells us are “rewards.” Often what we think will be rewarding is not.    In fact, when you “reward” a behavior, the person often loses interest in it.  This had been demonstrated in study after study (and was the focus of my undergraduate lab research, back at University of Toronto).  For example, many studies have rewarded students with cash for attendance or performance at school, only to find that as soon as the cash rewards stopped the students’ performance and attendance actually dropped below the level it was when the study started.

Alfie Kohn writes:

“the best that carrots – and sticks – can do is change people’s behavior temporarily: They can never create a lasting commitment to an action or a value, and often they have exactly the opposite effect… 

“… children are apt to become less concerned about others’ well being if they were rewarded earlier for helping or sharing.  Students, meanwhile, become less excited about learning once they’ve been given a grade (or some other artificial inducement) for doing so.  …. and no controlled study has ever… found a long-term enhancement in the quality of work as a result of any kind of incentive or pay-for-performance plan.”

“Over the years, researchers have investigated some intriguing questions…. For instance: What if a reward is really large or luscious? (Answer: It’s apt to do even more damage to intrinsic motivation). Are rewards destructive because they distract people from the task?  Apparently not, because other distractions don’t have the same negative consequences.) Which is worse, giving people a set reward for doing something or making it contingent on how well they do it? (The latter, by along shot.)