August 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 2 // Tools of the Trade // 2TOT3

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The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes

Behaviorism has become so widely accepted that we no longer question its pervasive influence in the family, in our work, or in education. The heart of behaviorism is: Do this and you'll get that. Yet, Kohn points out that the wisdom of this approach has rarely been challenged. Kohn's latest book takes on the behaviorist approach, revealing its weaknesses and problems as evidenced in the research.

Kirk A. Astroth
Extension Specialist
4-H Youth Development
Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana
Internet address:

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. Alfie Kohn. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. 1993. 398 pp. $22.95 hardcover.

Alfie Kohn, nationally known educator and author, came close to flunking Introduction to Psychology. As a student, he sat through lectures but also trained caged rats during the lab to press a little bar. In return for this act, Kohn rewarded them with little Rice Krispies. For a class project, he turned in a lab report written from the rat's point of view: how to train college students in breakfast-feeding behavior. Not surprisingly, Kohn readily admits that he did not take well to behaviorism from the very first. Now, he addresses behaviorism head-on.

In this his latest book, Kohn recites the wealth of research which has shown that rewards as well as punishments don't work in the long run. "Rewards, like punishments, are very effective at producing short-term compliance." Yet, the research shows that rewards do not work to promote long-term behavior change or to enhance one's level of performance. In fact, rewards decrease personal motivation and result in poorer performance. Moreover, "research shows that when we are working for a reward, we do exactly what is necessary to get it and no more." In addition, the very need to keep offering rewards to generate the same kind of behavior should be a clue about their long-term effects: "the more rewards are used, the more they seem to be needed."

The problem, Kohn writes, is that behaviorism has become so widely accepted that we no longer question it. Moreover, it has become so deeply rooted that it feels like common sense to us. The basic problem of behaviorism is "the idea that the best way to get something done is to provide a reward to people when they act the way we want them to." The heart of behaviorism is: "Do this and you'll get this." Yet the wisdom of this approach, Kohn argues, has rarely been held up for inspection.

As one of the foremost proponents of behaviorism, B.F. Skinner did most of his work--ironically enough, Kohn points out--with rats and pigeons, yet he wrote most of his books about people. Skinner's ideas about rewards and punishments have taken over our notions about such widely ranging topics as how to raise children, reward employees, and motivate students. While behaviorism may work for the family pet, we ought to question whether this kind of philosophy is appropriate for guiding our interactions with people in all walks of life.

According to Kohn, the complete failure of rewards to influence long term behavior and values is evident in the home, in the classroom, and even in the workplace. This book, in fact, is not just great reading for those of us involved in youth development, but it should also be required reading for administrators and staff development specialists. In a nudge at the business world, Chapter 7 starts off with an "Executive Summary" (the only chapter with one) before it debunks merit pay, pay-for-performance schemes, and other monetary incentive and bonus plans commonly used in corporate America. Eventually, Kohn offers fourteen reasons why incentive and merit pay systems fail to produce the desired results. What are some of the reasons such systems fail? First, they're entirely unnecessary because good employees are already doing a good job. Moreover, Kohn writes, pay doesn't match performance ratings, pay isn't a motivator, rewards discourage risk-taking, incentive systems tend to reward short-term performance that may be at odds with the long-term interests of the organization and, in general, rewards punish. "The point is money isn't the point." Many people who advocate such pay incentives just don't get it.

Kohn's messages in this latest work speak volumes to those in education. The book is a classic reference which could revolutionize the 4-H incentives and recognition program as well as revamp most Extension performance appraisal systems. Particularly entertaining is the inclusion in the appendix of a transcript of a conversation Kohn recorded in 1983 with B.F. Skinner. Firm believers in behaviorism will even be shocked by Skinner's definition of love, which strikes one as cold and devoid of emotion or purpose.

In reality, some will probably dismiss Kohn's book as another diatribe against competition. However, Kohn willingly concedes that the problem is not rewards, but how they are used. When used to control or manipulate people's behavior, rewards are bad. As he points out, "controlling people through the use of rewards is contrary to the principles of democracy." And if we aim to help people develop the skills necessary to live in a democratic society, rewards (and their counterpart punishments) undermine this long-term goal.