The Dark Side of Rewards and Praise

My previous post (on a child’s outlook influencing their intelligence) made me recall a segment in a BBC documentary (I think it was either Human Body or Child of our Time, both hosted by Robert Winston) about how using rewards too much can actually demotivate a child. It seemed that by promising a reward while assigning a task, the child would focus on how to […]

My previous post (on a child’s outlook influencing their intelligence) made me recall a segment in a BBC documentary (I think it was either Human Body or Child of our Time, both hosted by Robert Winston) about how using rewards too much can actually demotivate a child.

It seemed that by promising a reward while assigning a task, the child would focus on how to acheive the reward with the least possible effort, shifting focus away from intrinsic motivation and simply enjoying the task at hand. They illustrated this effect in a classroom, and it only took one or two occurrences to to demotivate the children, and created flow-on problems for quite a while afterwards like boredom, lack of focus and loss of self-sufficiency. This negative effect could be avoided by not promising the reward ahead of time and only providing a reward on a regular basis. With student motivation seeming to be the largest problem facing many teachers and schools today, I wonder if this phenomenon is at least partially to blame. It is very easy to fall into this trap and once started, it can be a slippery slope, as teachers try to counter demotivated students with the promised reward technique again. Even telling students they can leave class or stop work early once they have finished xyz, (or inversely, hold them in after the bell has rung to finish a task) can start them down the slippery slope.

Its facinating and somewhat terrifying how easy it can be to influence a person’s frame of mind. Which brings us back to the previous post – how are the children’s “theories” of intelligence being influenced in the classroom? Related studies have shown that praising a child for acheiving a particular task can be a problem, as (in a similar way to the promised reward technique) it conditions the child to expect (or even attempt to ‘engineer’) praise. This becomes a problem if a task is not done well – if praise is withheld, then the child will feel like they are not able to accomplish that task and be less inclined to try in the future. This fosters ‘helpless’ orientation of learners. However, it is also possible to foster ‘mastery-oriented’ learning using praise. The key is to not praise the task itself, but rather to praise the characteristics used to complete the task. For example, when a child has created a painting, instead of saying “what a beautiful painting”, you could praise their creativity etc.

Recognising the correct characteristics to praise can take some getting used to, however there is help available. The Virtues Project has identified a list of virtues, categorised them and selected a shortlist of the most important ones to bear in mind. They also provide advice and training of how to identify virtues in people’s actions and acknlowledge them. They provide courses for teachers, who in turn teach the students, who interestingly teach their parent as they are intrinsically motivated to be praised on their virtues. They also offer a lot of other advice with many different applications from Violence Prevention to Leadership Development. I actually know someone who is finishing their masters thesis on applying the virtues project in primary schools. The results have shown a significant improvement in sociability and time on task for pretty much all students (less for students that already rated well) in the space of only a few weeks.

So it is good to know that the ease of influencing someone can be both a good and a bad thing.

Author: EricWoods

See all posts by EricWoods (35)

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