Book Discussion: Punished by Rewards (Part 2 - Motivation)

February 3, 2012 4:35 pm

51EJGHFCM5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_In Part 1 I discussed Kohn's argument for rewards/punishments creating self-centered individuals and how urging a focus on rewards/punishments can have unintended consequences by encouraging short-cutting the desired behavior in order to satisfy the requirements of receiving the reward or avoiding the punishment.

Here, in Part 2, I will discuss motivation and the interaction between it and rewards/punishments.

And in Part 3 I'll go over Kohn's alternatives to rewards and punishments.


Many people want an answer to the question, "How do I motivate my employees/students/children?"  Kohn's response is that you don't.  The best you can do is get demotivators out of their way and provide a nurturing, encouraging, environment.

Well, surely this isn't right.  If I tell my kid that for every piece of paper they fold in half I'll give them a dollar it's almost a sure bet that I won't be able to find an unfolded piece of paper before long.  Certainly that means the promise of payment motivated the child to fold paper, right?  And you are absolutely right.  So let's discuss what Kohn means and how it applies.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation

We make a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is your internal desire to do something.  It stems from your own interest in the matter and the enjoyment you find in pursuing it.  Extrinsic motivation is applied from the outside--it is external to your self.  Paying someone money to do something is to give them an extrinsic motivator.  The idea is that we only do things that we are motivated to do, however that motivation may be either intrinsic or extrinsic.  And there's a big difference between the two.

A person motivated intrinsically is much more likely to persevere at a difficult task and for much longer periods of time than someone motivated extrinsically.  Many actions undertaken because of extrinsic motivation will quickly disappear once the outside factor is removed.

What's really interesting, however, is the interaction between the two.  Extrinsically motivated actions often disappear at the loss of the motivator, but extrinsic motivation can actually replace intrinsic motivation and getting the intrinsic motivation back is difficult.  That is to say, if a child enjoys drawing pictures and you tell them you'll pay them for each picture they draw (and do), and then you stop paying them, the child is very likely to no longer have an interest in drawing pictures (at least for some period of time).  You have, essentially, ripped from them their intrinsic motivation, replaced it with an external motivator, and then took away the external motivator.

Think about what this means, long term, for the kinds of things to which we apply extrinsic motivators.  It is possible (though not assured) that you can destroy the joy someone finds in an activity by actively rewarding them for doing the activity.

Consequences of Extrinsic Motivators

The ability for extrinsic to replace intrinsic motivation is not the end of the problems though.  Extrinsic motivators work great on simple, mechanical tasks.  However, they fail miserably at tasks requiring creativity or complex problem solving.  In fact, not only do they fail, they result in worse performance than when no extrinsic motivator is present.  One possible explanation is that because the motivator focuses our attention on the motivator rather than the task we fail to think deeply about the task in our rush to obtain the reward or avoid the punishment.

Artistic works produced for commissions are judged to be less creative than those done without.  Students take longer trying to find the solution to creative problems when told their performance is being measured.   When performance is being measured and reported students become more interested in how they're doing compared to their peers than how they're doing on the task.

Extrinsic motivators also harm the relationship between the motivator and the motivatee.  It sets the two apart as one having power and the other not.  It sets up a relationship of control rather than respect.  It often leads to resentment.

And there are plenty of other problems with the use of extrinsic motivators.

Nurturing Intrinsic Motivation

I stated at the beginning that Kohn's recommendation was to remove demotivators instead of enacting extrinsic motivators.  This is, of course, much harder than just promising rewards.  Part 3 will discuss some of the alternatives.

One thought on “Book Discussion: Punished by Rewards (Part 2 - Motivation)”

  1. Upon finishing my graduate degree I quickly discovered that I have essentially no intrinsic motivation. I can't make myself do anything if it isn't going to be visible to other people (i.e. other people are counting on me to do it or I know I'll be embarrassed if something isn't done). I want my gold stickers gosh darn it!
    Verification: sycho <--gee thanks

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