Everyone appreciates the value of a gold star or reward badge that says “I’m special!” or “I did it!”. Kids really respond to praise and encouragement-that’s why star charts or chore charts are an excellent tool for building positive behaviors. But are “Gold Stars” still necessary as an adult? As adults we don’t receive value from shiny stickers, but instead from cars, badges, prizes and praise from our peers.
It’s not that I find the reward itself that’s objectionable, it’s the practice of using something as a reward that causes a problem: “Do this and you’ll get that.” This feels controlling, causes what might become an unhealthy dependence. First off, I don’t want to come off as a “Gold Star Junkie”, but positive reinforcement is a great motivator, until you get end up covered in stickers as if they were tattoos, so please use moderation.
What’s the alternative? Even praise, if the emphasis is on doing what we want and what makes us happy, can be counterproductive. There is, however, nothing wrong with positive comments that acknowledge and encourage what children have done — and leave them feeling proud of themselves. Such comments are nice but if our long-term goal is more ambitious than getting people to obey mindlessly, then we’ll have to take the extra step of bringing them in on the process of making decisions.
The behaviorist theory—that people learn only when “good” and “bad” behavior is reinforced by rewards and punishments—seems to be plain wrong. Oddly enough, little of the research on the supposed ills of blatantly behavioristic practices reached classroom teachers; for the most part, it was marooned in psychology departments.
Few studies on the deleterious effects of rewards have been more influential than Mark Lepper‘s 1973 Magic Marker study. Lepper, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of The Hidden Costs of Rewards of rewards systems. It seems gratuitous to provide someone incentive to do what they already enjoy; in the parlance of behavioral studies, it’s a case of “over-justification“, Its like rewarding children with ice cream for watching television.
Even during a time in which productivity and prosperity seem to mean everything, getting rewarded has got to count for something, right? So after you do something you approve of, give yourself praise. Or give yourself imaginary points (for imaginary prizes). Or, instead of getting praise from yourself, you can arrange to have someone who is important to you to give you immediate praise and reinforcement (but don’t force it upon them and don’t go overboard). I don’t want credit just so my ego can get bloated, I want recognition so that my efforts feel as though they are worth something, they are worth accomplishing and being proud of. Positive reinforcement, in whatever form acts as a catalyst for change in behaviors, relationships and beliefs.
So who wants a Gold Star?
- The Risks of Rewards (alfiekohn.org)
- Bribing kids to eat their greens really does work (bps-research-digest.blogspot.com)