Wednesday, April 28, 2010

alfie: rewards make ppl less interested in what they are doing

study 1:
subjects were asked to work on a puzzle. half were offered money, half were not offered money. subjects were told it would be a few minutes until the next phase got started. subjects were left alone in the room with the puzzle. (secretly, that was the next phase. would they play with the puzzle or do something else?)
those who were paid spent less time working on the puzzle (while supposedly waiting for the experiment to start) than those who were not paid.

study 2:
teachers used rewards to induce children to play with educational games. they did.
when rewards were no longer available, those kids avoided those games. in classrooms where no rewards were given, children eagerly played with those games (as well as others).

study 3:
kids could draw with magic markers. half would recieve a certificate w/ gold star for drawings.
1 wk later, receivers of certificate were less interested in markers than other students. AND less interested than they had been at the beginning.

study 4:
half of kids were told that in order to color with felt-tip pens, thye had to spend some time drawing with crayons. other half were told the reverse.
a few weeks later, whichever one was the prerequisite was the one the kids were less interested in doing.

other studies are in footnotes.

logical basis:

1) do "this" and you'll get "that" devalues the "this" in the person's mind. it is like telling the person that the activity is not worth doing for its own sake.

2) rewards are usually perceived as controlling, and people do not view favorably activities where autonomy has been diminished. the more discretion and choice we have about our activities and how we do them, the happier we are.

he cites studies that anytime we are encouraged to focus on how well we are doing something (instead of concentrating on the process of doing it), it is less likely that we will enjoy the activity and less likely we would keep doing it if given a choice.

What about:

temporary rewards. reward them until they learn how to read, eg, and then they'll enjoy the intrinsic motivation of the books they read.

this is particularly tempting to me. why not reward to get over the hump of vocabulary memorization, drill work, etc.

i began reading this book with the firm belief that rewarding for these kind of things is a good thing.

after reading, i am wondering. it seems that alfie is suggesting that once you present rewards, you are not simply adding 2 types of motivation to the child, and the more motivation, the better. it appears that offering extrinsic rewards inherently diminishes intrinsic motivation. the child perceives that the thing you are rewarding for is not good for its own sake, and it shifts the whole view and feelings towards the activity. these are subtle and long term effects.

alfie makes the point: teachers say, "if i don't say this will be on the test, they won't learn it." managers say the job won't be done right unless there is a bonus. he suggests that these are not signs that rewards are necessary; they are signs that something is wrong with the way the workplace or classroom is set up or with what people are being asked to do or how.

i am beginning to question the long-term relationship that the child has with the knowledge they are rewarded for attaining. is my goal for my child to amass a body of knowledge or information? many people will say yes. this may not be their end goal, but they certainly want their children educated with plenty of information under their belts as a prerequisite to true learning.

my personal decision (and that's one of the things i adore about homeschool--i get to do exactly what i want and everyone else can do exactly what they want and everyone can happily disagree with everyone), based on my personal relationship to the large quantities of information that are in my head lo lishma, is that i am beginning to lean towards a more autonomous, self-directed approach that draws on the intrinsic motivation of the child. alfie makes a case that this fosters the best long-term pleasant relationship with the material.

originally, i thought: kids don't like learning vocabulary. they don't like translation. so why not just reward them to do it? i would say to chana (and sarah before her): i know you don't like this. i want you to have the skills in case you want to learn torah when you are older.

after reading alfie, i wonder if i am short-changing them. there are simple pleasures in translating correctly. making strides in knowledge is enjoyable. am i making it less enjoyable by changing their perception of it into something that needs to be done, needs to be gotten through?
chana does seem to enjoy our time with the white board and the pictures and the translations.

alfie cites a study that "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"!!

he further makes the point that before introducing a reward, it would be more productive to simply ask the person why he or she is bored. maybe it's too easy or too hard, etc. and to adjust the task. he says that giving a reward undermines the possibility that the person will find themselves intrinsically motivated at some later point.

this seems a direct contradiction to the chazal "מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה" a person should always engage in torah not for its own sake, since this leads to doing it for its own sake.

despite alfie's logic, i am not willing to discount chazal and would like to understand what chazal mean and why, despite alfie's solid points, they maintain this.


  1. Nice post. The four cases you cited seem to be pretty short term. Are there any experiments that focus on the kind of system Rambam suggested: a graduated, long-term reward system?

    Certainly, one thing Alfie teaches us, is that if one does chose to use a reward system they think it out really clearly.

  2. i believe the problem that motivated him to write the book was the long term issues that the majority of people are unhappy in their jobs, looking forward to weekends and vacations. and the majority of students are disenchanted with many of the activities they are doing for all those hours. a major issue, he says, is that in schools the students are working towards grades, which encourages doing what is necessary for the grade but not true (or intrinsically-motivated) learning.

    i would be very interested in an analysis of "a person should ALWAYS learn lo lishma, since from lo lishma comes lishma."

    regarding rambam, one presumes that learning lishma is a high level, one that few achieve? perhaps the rambam is more concerned with preservation of the system? do you know the source? i can look it up in context and see if that gives any clues. (i seem to remember he is talking about the individual's torah learning, which would seem to imply it was for the individual's benefit).

  3. Maybe I will write a post on my understanding of "lo lishma"