Punished by Rewards

Reviewed on , book by Alfie Kohn

I really loved this book. Certainly one of those where the world’s seen a little different once you finish it.

The book’s hypothesis is essentially that the most widely believed ideas about how to motivate people by rewards and punishment is completely flawed. Yes, they may help get things done short-term, but it completely tampers with the long-term motivations. As soon as you dangle the metaphorical carrot in front of a child to read books, you pivot the motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic. The author goes to such extremes he thinks we should abandon school grades, which are another example of rewards. Rewards pretty much only work for very small, mundane tasks. Beyond that, use them carefully and consider that you may open a door you can never close.

Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.

“a parent who says to a child, “If you finish your math homework, you may watch an hour of TV” is teaching the child to think of math as something that isn’t much fun.” (Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards)

I am not completely sure how the research stands up 20 years later but as the hypothesis in the book relies on fairly simple experiments, I’d imagine fair well.