Don’t Reward Good Behaviour

Every so often psychological studies throw up results that leave me – and possibly you too – gasping in disbelief. The boffins are now telling us not to reward good behaviour. Surely that can’t be right! What about all those B F Skinner experiments reinforcing and encouraging behaviours with rewards – you know the one’s where pigeons peck for a pellet of food or Pavlov’s dogs salivate at the sound of a bell?

Operant conditioning is a major plank of psychology and now I’m reading that rewards don’t motivate us! What on earth is going on?

Well it seems that we can easily turn a pleasure into a chore. That certainly strikes a chord with me. On the whole, I love writing these blogs because I’m fascinated by psychology, but my attitude to writing them changes when I think I’m writing them just to drive traffic to my web site. Then writing them becomes a chore.

When we’re trying to motivate others into doing something we want them to do, we run the risk of actually de-motivating them if we choose the wrong reward. Rewards can be categorised into two types; intrinsic or extrinsic.  We’re motivated by intrinsic rewards but only if the task is in itself interesting or enjoyable – so that’s something that an individual enjoys doing and doesn’t rely on external pressures (you threatening them for example!) or the desire for reward (a pay bonus perhaps). Students or workers who are intrinsically motivated, are more likely to engage in a task willingly and will even work to improve their skills – so here we’re dealing with a sense of autonomy: we will want to master a topic for its own sake rather than for promotion or to achieve a good grade. So don’t tell your kids to study hard in order to get a good job. Tell them instead to study hard so they become the sort of person they want to be.

Extrinsic rewards on the other hand only work if the task itself is a chore to begin with – like stuffing envelopes or in my case completing my VAT return. Now a reward like cash, trophies or the prospect of a fabulous meal will motivate us. Are you reading this Mr. Taxman?

The conclusion then is to be careful when trying to motivate others. If what you want others to do is an interesting enjoyable task, rewarding them for doing it might very well put them off. Instead highlight how interesting and enjoyable the task is, and motivate them that way. If you offer rewards you might just achieve the opposite effect.

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