Punished by Rewards


Alfie Kohn is the author of Punished by Rewards; the Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. The title says it all; everything you think you know about rewards is wrong. What Kohn calls “pop behaviorism” is ruining performance at home, in school, and at the office.

Khohn spends the first part of the book reminding us about the work of B.F. Skinner, who believed that all human behavior was simply a response to stimuli in our environment. Skinner considered free will to be an illusion, and believed you could control anyone through a series of punishments and rewards. Kohn argues that this idea has seeped into every bit of our popular and business culture, and it’s created an army of zombie students and workers on their way to the lowest common denominator of performance.

Numerous studies in the 20th century proved conclusively that rewards do not improve behavior or performance. Study participants who are promised rewards for performance almost always perform worse than those who are not rewarded. Daniel Pink cited the same studies in his book Drive, which studied motivation. In study after study, people who were promised rewards for behavior performed worse and discontinued the behavior when the reward ran out.

Yet we continue to bribe students in school and our children at home. We offer extra privileges for “good” behavior and punishments (or retracted rewards, which are the same thing) for “bad” behavior. We offer bonuses to workers for reaching goals; we send our top salesmen on cruises. Why is this system so ingrained in our society if it doesn’t work? Kohn’s theory is that rewards benefit the system instead of the people in it. We’re paying to perpetuate something that’s more comfortable and easy to control (sit down, be quiet, obey orders) rather than seeking to actually improve performance.

Here’s why rewards don’t work, according to Kohn:

  • Rewards and punishments are not opposites; in our brains, they are two sides of the same coin. They are simply a way to control behavior. Most people build up a resistance to the manipulation, so more and more is required to change behavior (whether it’s a reward or punishment.)
  • Rewards rupture relationships. Rewarding performance creates a sense of scarcity among students or workers, and creates competition and reduces teamwork. The overall performance of the team declines as the low-performing members give up because they’ll never win and second-place finishers get discouraged because their effort was in vain (no matter how well they performed.) Team members stop helping each other learn and grow because they perceive each other as rivals. When a reward system is not sustainable, the removal of the reward feels like a punishment, so performance decreases once more.
  • Rewards ignore reasons. When you give a child a piece of candy to stop her from crying, you don’t have to deal with why she’s crying. Rewards and punishments relieve the giver of any responsibility in solving the root cause of behavior. You’re treating symptoms and ignoring the underlying causes. It’s not good medicine and it’s not good management.
  • Rewards reduce risk. People who are promised rewards focus only on the parts of the task that are tied to rewards. They ignore data or obligations that are not tied to pay points. They ignore customers or prospects that are not perceived as worthwhile. They also tend to see tasks as the obligation standing between them and the reward, so they do the minimum possible and the easiest tasks that will get them the reward. Not exactly a recipe for greatness in any organization.

The problem is that rewards are easy and motivation is very, very hard work. In one study, people who were paid to do a task showed a significant decrease in interest in it; payment actually killed the joy of doing it.

Kohn hopes that his work will help companies end their pay for play plans and prompt parents to give up extrinsic motivators. But he fears that we’ve been making the assumption that we can reward people into better performance for so long that we won’t be able to stop. Even when the results are punishing us all every day.

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