George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Six Reasons Rewards Don’t Work

Do commonly used rewards actually work?

March 6, 2012

In my last post, I gave three of the best alternatives to rewards. I was surprised at how many people read and enjoyed it. I'm grateful to all who commented on various platforms. Some, however, still want to know what's wrong with using rewards as long as they work. I'll explore that question more deeply here.

When I talk with educational professionals and parents about why it is best not to use rewards in both academic and behavioral situations, I frequently hear the response, "But it works." Before debating whether or not rewards work, we need to understand what the word "works" really means. For example, if I went to the doctor with a sore knee, one solution that would end the pain would be to amputate my leg. There is no doubt this solution would work. But it is still the wrong answer.

What's missing is that we must look not only at the benefit of the strategy but also at the cost, and decide if the gain is worth the price. When it comes to educating and raising children, at school and at home, there is always a cost, no matter what solution is selected. Some of the costs are obvious, many are hidden, but they must be considered whenever we determine if something works. When it comes to rewards, before we examine the potential benefits, lets fully examine the costs. They are very high. Here are the highest:

1) Satiation

Satiation means that more of something is required to get the same effect. Examples are pain medication or hot water in a bath. I love a hot bath, but eventually it starts to feel cooler, and I add more hot water. Rewards are like that. Children never say, "That's way too much. Please give me less." They often say, "Is that all? I want more." Eventually, rewards like stickers, food, parties, toys or candy become expected, and their effect is greatly reduced. It is a common myth that you can start with rewards and later remove them. This happens very rarely.

2) Addiction

Satiation leads to addiction. Many children become addicted to rewards and will not work without them. When I taught seventh grade English, I frequently gave stickers to my students. One day I ran out, and informed my students that there will be no stickers for a few days. A riot ensued. "Where's my sticker?" "I want a sticker!" "I won't do anything without a sticker!!!" I discovered they had become addicted to stickers. A parent even called that night to complain that her son was upset because I didn't give him his sticker. I decided to never use them again.

Hyperbole aside, there is an addictive quality to rewards; and when children expect them, they become dependent on them.

3) Finishing

In school there is a difference between learning from your lesson and simply finishing it. Did you ever take and pass a foreign language course in high school or college? Can you speak that language now? Did you ever take a required course and passed it while learning nothing? This phenomenon is called "finishing." Bribes tend to produce "finishers" rather than "learners." Children are more interested in finishing their work and getting the reward than actually learning what the lesson is designed to teach. Finishing work is far less important than learning from the work that is finished.

4) Manipulation

We do not like it when children try to manipulate us. Yet when we manipulate them, we teach them how to be master manipulators.

Giving your wife flowers (or receiving them from your husband) illustrates this concept. If the flowers are meant to show love, it is appreciation. If they are meant to convince the recipient to do a favor for the giver, it is a manipulation. Many children, who have been manipulated throughout their lives, are very sensitive about it and react negatively to further manipulation.

Sometimes even the winners lose. Talia was a charming eighth grader who studied hard and gave thoughtful answers in class. Her teacher continually said to the class, "Why can't more of you be like Talia? She always does her work and tries hard." Other children began to tease her about being the teacher's pet. She was occasionally shunned. She began doing small annoying things, albeit mild, and stopped handing in homework to stop this persecution and to get the teacher to stop using her as an example. Many children do not like being singled out for doing well.

5) Increased Pressure

The more we tell children how good they are, the greater the fall if they cannot live up to all that praise. Pressure leads to insecurity. It is far better to build confidence from the inside by designing activities that challenge children than it is to simply reward them.

6) Bribes

Bribes reduce choices and the skill of making them. When we offer an incentive for a child to do something, then we are deciding for that child what we want him to do. Obviously, this is not generically bad. There are many times when we need to make decisions for children, especially those involving safety. But when we decide for others, we take away the ability of that person to choose, and an opportunity is lost to teach decision-making skills. One way to identify great teachers and parents is by how well they balance telling children what to do and letting them make their own choice.

Bribes are threats in disguise. Withholding rewards can be used as a threat hammer very easily. The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin: control.

So before we say, "Rewards work," let's examine the cost. For most of us, it's never worth it.

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