Reward Principles

This is lifted from Alphie Kohn’s wonderful rant “Punished by Rewards


  • Rewards are only effective at producing compliance.
    • The more rewards are used, the more they are needed.
    • Rewards assume compliance is involuntary and control is necessary.
    • Rewards give power to the rewarder; and reinforces hierarchy.
  • Rewards work best:
    • If the recipient is already dependent.
    • If used for short term results.
    • If not intended to alter attitudes or commitments.
    • If already alienated from the task.
    • If the task is simple, and measured quantitatively.
  • Why rewards fail:
    • Rewards punish (when not received).
    • Rewards rupture relationships, erode cooperation.
    • Rewards ignore reasons/causes (only results count).
    • Rewards discourage risk-taking and innovation.
    • Rewards undermine interest in the rewarded task.
  • Contests and competitions
    • Increase anxiety (by increasing risk)
    • Discourage some from making and effort (calculated loss).
    • Cause people to attribute results to factors outside their control (to maintain self-esteem).

4 thoughts on “Reward Principles

  1. Bill Stoddard

    Hey Ben,
    An open ended question to stir the pot… What exactly is a reward? Is fair pay for fair work a ‘reward’?


  2. Ben Hyde

    Or, to take it all the way to the other end of the spectrum what of a bit of postive reenforcement. Do all those deadly syndrome he enumerates arise when you say “thank you” or when you indicate your grateful.

    I think that the motives of those who manage the game with the rewards in it count for a lot in answering these questions.

    If those who are running the game are using the rewards to dominate and manipulate then it’s likely that the players will know that. The players will then become alienated from the enterprise.

    So “fair” is exactly the word to focus upon. If the employer starts using pay to manipulate the reward schedule associated with the work in a manner that leads to increasing amounts of alienation, erosion of cooperation, increasing anxiety that’s almost surely a sign that Mr. Fair has exited the building.

    There seems to be another interesting subplot about how rewards/punishments that the structure of the situation create; like the economy, the weather, the lifecycle of a product, for example don’t suffer from these syndromes to the same degree.

    What seems to makes those distructive syndrome arise is the artifical or manipulated gaming of the environment by an outside force.

  3. Dan

    I think the best way to define a reward is any tangible motivation that creates the desire in an individual to accomplish a particular task.

    While Kohn does seem to say that even a “thank you” can be too much. However, when used correctly, a “thank you” can be deemed appropriate. For example, if the students are told thank you for coopereating, that is alright. If the students are told “thank you” for making good grades, then it loses its meaning. In other words, if the reward is turned from rewarding to appreciation, I think it takes on more of a human interaction rather than a sender-receiver transaction.

  4. Eric Stephan

    It sometimes takes a few rewards to return a beat up human being to child-like internalization/functional efficiency.

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