Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Alfie Kohn on rewards, praise and motivation

Alfie Kohn seems to take the somewhat exptreme point that rewards are bad, period. It's not because it's extreme that it wrong; however I'd like to have a more detailed understanding of why, in which cases, what negative consequences to expect, in what cases, etc.

In Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!"; some possible downsides of praise:It can replace the intrinsic motivation of doing something (e.g. helping someone by compassion, drawing 'cause it's fun). This is different from some advice that I've heard before that it's better to praise kids for their hard work  and persistence than for their innate talent. He does suggest alternatives to praise:
* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement ("You put your shoes on by yourself" or even just "You did it") tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: "This mountain is huge!" "Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!"
If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: "Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack." This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing
* Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking "What was the hardest part to draw?" or "How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?" is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying "Good job!", as we’ve seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.
Looks like reasonable good and actionable advice! However, I wish there was more on how much this depends of the child's age group.

The Risks of Rewards has similar ideas but is more technical. I liked this bit:
In one representative study, young children were introduced to an unfamiliar beverage called kefir. Some were just asked to drink it; others were praised lavishly for doing so; a third group was promised treats if they drank enough. Those children who received either verbal or tangible rewards consumed more of the beverage than other children, as one might predict. But a week later these children found it significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas children who were offered no rewards liked it just as much as, if not more than, they had earlier (Birch et al., 1984). If we substitute reading or doing math or acting generously for drinking kefir, we begin to glimpse the destructive power of rewards. The data suggest that the more we want children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.
At least ten studies have shown that people offered a reward generally choose the easiest possible task (Kohn, 1993). In the absence of rewards, by contrast, children are inclined to pick tasks that are just beyond their current level of ability.
... seems rewards for drawing is bad, but rewards for taking the garbage down may not be that bad (Oh no! It might destroy the intrensic pleasure of taking the garbage down! though yeah on the other side helping around the house could be "it's own reward").
In here, a critic says:
In his book, Punished by Rewards, Kohn claims “Praise, at least as commonly practiced, is a way of using and perpetuating children’s dependence on us.  It gets them to conform to our wishes irrespective of what those wishes are.” (p. 104.) Kohn also argues that praise and rewards for good behavior are destructive to motivation. The truth is actually somewhat more complicated. Rewards can reduce motivation, but only when motivation was somewhat high to start with. If the student is unmotivated to perform some task, rewarding him will not hurt his motivation. Praise can be controlling and exact a psychological cost, but its effect on the recipient depends on how it’s construed: does the child think you are offering sincere appreciation for a job well done, or sending the message that future behavior had better be in line with expectations? There is important psychological work showing that the role of praise and reward is complex. Carol Dweck is a leader in this field and her book, Mindset, provides a good overview.
 Whether or not this criticism is fair, Carol Deck looks worth reading! Anyway, Alfie Kohn answers:
2. PRAISE: Mr. Willingham [...] offers two specific assertions. First, “rewards can reduce motivation, but only when motivation was somewhat high to start with.” If motivation is sufficiently low, then, yes, there isn’t much room for it to fall. But (a) motivation is often low precisely because of the damage done by rewards administered earlier; (b) rewards are likely to prevent the recovery of intrinsic motivation regardless of the reason it’s currently in short supply; and (c) rewards may be disadvantageous in other ways. In a four-page response to the question “If we’re worried about reducing intrinsic motivation, then what’s the problem with giving people rewards for doing things they don’t find interesting?” (PBR, pp. 87-90), I offered a variety of other responses, both theoretical and practical, that challenge Mr. Willingham’s unqualified pronouncement. (Among the studies cited in that section is one by Danner and Lonky that found “extrinsic rewards were no more effective in increasing the motivation of children whose initial level of interest was low than were simple requests to work on the tasks.”)
Second, we’re told that the effect of praise will depend on how it’s construed. Well, yes and no. Verbal rewards are often difficult to construe in a way that isn’t controlling, or that don’t serve to devalue the activity in question, or that don’t communicate conditional acceptance of the child. Nevertheless, I think there is some truth to this statement and I have said so in print. In fact, my concern about behaviorism in its various guises is partly based on the tendency to slight people’s attitudes, goals, perspectives, and constructions, focusing instead just on observable actions and results: doing homework, taking (or doing well on) tests, giving or receiving rewards, and so on. I think any fair-minded reader would concede that what I do in Punished – and what I try to do in most of my writings – is say, “Things are not as simple as they’re generally made out to be.” The irony of accusing me of oversimplifying may offer a frisson of satisfaction to someone who doesn’t care for my views, but I’ve yet to see evidence that there’s any truth to the charge.
 ... which seems to cover most criticism.

I liked this guy's take: Alfie Kohn has nice ideas in theory, but they may not always work in practice. This makes a lot of sense to me:
Kohn was the daddy I wanted when I was 13. The permissive daddy who never shouted and never spanked. Who would coo and coddle me even when I failed my tests. My Baba is the daddy I am happy I got at 21. Unlike a Kohn Daddy, my Baba set down rules and helped me understand that rationality and morality were subjective. They rely heavily on a person’s cultural sensibilities and understanding of the world. And the world is often very Kafka-esque, possessed of a hermetic logic.
... that points out what seems to be a weak point on Kohn's arguments: while the reasoning about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation seems well supported by experience (and makes a lot of sense), the arguments about why his recommended way of raising children produces "better" adults (more psychologically balanced / happy / open-minded etc.) is much more theoretic.


  1. Kohn is a cagey character. Here's a quote from that link "5 reasons to Stop Saying Good Job"

    "To be sure, there are times when our evaluations are appropriate and our guidance is necessary -- especially with toddlers and preschoolers."

    So, is he saying praise appropriate and necessary before age 6? Kohn is good a slipping in these little disclaimers about his extreme views.

  2. The reason to stop saying "Good Job!" is that parenting research shows that this kind of cheap praise is not rewarding. You need to make specific mention of the good behavior that you are praising. "Saying what you saw" and "asking more" are known to be powerful social rewards. Parental attention is a powerful social rewards.

    Kohn seems to be well-read in the field of behaviorism. I guess he only sees what he believes and is just plain unable to comprehend what he surely must have read about.