Why Rewards Don’t Change Behavior

Rewarding young people for expected standards of behavior is counterproductive for promoting responsibility. Yet so many parents and teachers use rewards. Let’s explore some of the reasons.

Rewards offer a seductively quick and easy way to create obedience. Asking a child to do something in order to gain a reward is an effective way to manipulate behavior in the short term. For example, promising, “If you sit here quietly for Mommy, in just a little while I’ll buy you some ice cream,” often produces the desired result. When the child suddenly chooses to behave, rewards can seem very effective. Candy, games, and movies can all be used to manipulate young people toward good behavior. But consider how long the effect lasts. The answer: only until the ice cream is gone, the candy swallowed, the game played, or the movie ended. Attitudes and commitment remain largely untouched.

Another reason rewards are so commonly used is that people believe that stimulus-response psychology is effective in changing human behavior. This approach is based on the theory that human beings can be motivated and trained like animals. Stephen Covey, in his book The 8th Habit, refers to this as “the Great Jackass Technique that motivates with a carrot in front (reward) and drives with a stick from behind (fear and punishment).” Humans—unlike animals—have the cognitive ability and power to choose. As Covey points out, you cannot buy someone’s heart, mind, or spirit.

Along this same line of reasoning, many people have come to believe that the carrot and the stick are necessary. This stimulus-response approach is prevalent among many parents, teachers, and educational professionals. School districts—and even some states in the U.S.—have mandated programs that originated with helping special needs students because, as the theory goes, these learning disabled students need something concrete, something tangible, such as stickers, when something good is done. “Catch them doing something good and then reward them for it” has left an untold number of students punished because they also did “something good” but were not given the expected reward. This approach is a variation of the old behavior-modification approach designed to reinforce desired behavior by using rewards. In the process of using external manipulators for motivation, intrinsic motivation for long-lasting responsible behavior is reduced—as has been repeatedly proven.

People assume that an external manipulator, such as a reward, causes young people to change. But this is not true; people change because of a decision to do so. No amount of ringing Dr. Pavlov’s bell would stimulate an animal to drink if it were not thirsty. Besides, Pavlov was no fool; he used dogs rather than cats, which, like people, are much more independent.