Concentrate not on the eradication of evil, but on the cultivation of virtue. Evil is not driven out, but crowded out.
–Martin Luther King Jr.
I found this quote back when I was in college. The concept it expresses has stuck with me over the years and had a big impact on choices I have made. For example, I found that it was easier to change my diet by focusing on increasing the healthy foods I ate as opposed to avoiding foods that were unhealthy.
It also informs my approach to teaching and parenting. I found myself more interested in how to cultivate positive, prosocial behavior in children than how to eliminate poor behavior. Of course, I have worked on how to deal with less-than-healthy behaviors in children, but my strategies typically lean towards crowding them out.
In this article, I will explore the use of rewards as a motivator. This has long been an area of interest for me as a martial arts teacher. I have seen how motivated children (and adults!) can be around getting a new belt. Kids tend to see their belt as a badge that gives them social status both in and out of the martial arts school.
A lot of schools use this to keep unmotivated students from withdrawing from their program. A child wanting to quit is told that if they just stay another month, they will be able to get their next belt. Not only is this a common retention strategy for some schools, business consultants within the martial arts industry will encourage school owners to use this method to increase their enrollment.
One result of this is frequent belt tests, regardless of readiness, and children earning black belts in 2-3 years.
This has always bothered me. I could see the short-term, yet powerful, impact of the reward. But as a student myself, I was always excited about what I was learning, not the color of my belt. I wanted to share that passion with my students, and the belts often felt like a distraction from that.
Later in my career, I found the work of Carol Dweck and discovered a wealth of research that confirmed for me not only that the belts were not what the best way to motivate students, but also that focusing on those external rewards could undermine the long-term self-esteem and capacity for grit in children (For more on this, check out this series of articles I wrote on the topic.)
It can seem a bit non-intuitive, but– if done incorrectly–giving rewards for behavior you want to reinforce can actually lead to a reduction in that behavior. Primarily, this has to do with the relationship between extrinsic (externally driven) versus intrinsic (internally driven) motivations, and how they can come into conflict.
For example, there was a study done that looked at the impact on schools giving awards to students for perfect attendance. When schools had an established award, it had no impact on attendance over schools that had no such award.
But when schools eliminated such awards, they saw a reduction in the number of students with perfect attendance, suggesting that students saw this as a loss of importance to the school and, thus, no longer a priority.
Let’s say you set the expectation that your child needs to finish his/her vegetables, you may or may not have success with them doing what they are told. If you incentivize them with a treat when they are done, you will have to keep doing that, or else they will decide there is no longer adequate incentive for them to eat their greens. You have set up expectation for what will happen and now have to meet that expectation for your child to comply.
In that same study, surprise awards for perfect attendance really backfired. Students who unexpectedly were rewarded for perfect attendance were more likely to have absences going forward. This suggests that the award gave students feedback that their attendance already exceeded expectations and they then had license to perform at a lower level.
If your child always ate his/her veggies, and then one day you said, “I’m proud of you, you ate your vegetables! Here’s a treat!”, he/she would realize that their behavior was unusual. It might tell them that they were exceeding your expectations by eating their vegetables and that they could get away with only meeting your expectations (by not eating them).
In these examples, the extrinsic motivator (e.g. an award) created a conflict with the intrinsic motivation (e.g. to have perfect attendance).
This was demonstrated in another study that looked at helping behavior. Kids that received a reward for being helpful were less likely to be helpful later on than kids who only received praise or even kids who received no feedback at all.
Children already have an impulse towards prosocial behavior such as kindness and sharing. Research has found that kids are happier when they give treats to others than when they receive treats. Furthermore, there are happier when they give their own treats to someone else than when they give something that does not belong to them.
So when children received a reward (extrinsic) for being helpful (something they were naturally inclined to do anyway), it created a conflict that moved them away from their natural impulse.
There are situations where rewards can reinforce positive behavior though.
For example, Wikipedia is built by volunteers writing and editing the content on the site. It has struggled as an institution to retain editors. Researchers discovered that a reward system could be very effective in improving retention. Editors were awarded symbolic prizes for their level of effort towards building and reviewing content (kind of a virtual trophy) and acknowledged for being “new users who have constructively contributed to our common project.”
Though they receive no financial incentive or recognition for their effort outside of the site, award recipients went on to contribute more than those who did not receive the reward.
This suggests that within the specific community (Wikipedia), people responded to recognition and validation that confirmed their value to that community.
For me as a martial arts student, the main reason I got excited about receiving a new belt was anticipation of all the cool new stuff I would learn. But as I got closer to black belt, I found more and more that junior students were looking up to me. This gave me a sense of value and validation within that particular community (the martial arts school).
Importantly, the intrinsic motivation (learning) was not in conflict with the extrinsic motivation (recognition from my peers). As a result, the two were synergistic—they fed off of one another.
On the other hand, if a student is interested in quitting and I waive a belt in front of them, that student will experience an intrinsic (desire to quit) and extrinsic (belt) conflict. They will be less likely to continue and, if they do, they will be less likely to stay motivated or find joy in their effort.
So rewards can be helpful, but should be approached with caution. Evaluate if a reward sets up an intrinsic/extrinsic conflict. And you should also consider whether praise would be more effective.