A (Confusingly) Rewarding Read: Reading Kohn’s Punished By Rewards

I’ve been flying a lot and, as the electronic gadgets have to be off for a while, I’ve been carrying books to read. The one that held my interest on the flight from Adelaide to Darwin was Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, As, Praise, and Other Bribes.” This is not a discipline text by any stretch of the imagination and, both as it is written for someone who isn’t very familiar with behaviourist terminology and is fairly critical of what it defines as behaviourism, it’s always important to be reserved in taking texts like this without reading around, looking for earlier critiques and being a little skeptical to start with. However, with that said, there’s a lot to think about in here.

Kohn’s fundamental thesis is that incentive schemes that are designed to manipulate or implicitly coerce us into ‘desirable’ behaviour tend to have the opposite effect. He presents a wide range of studies, unfortunately from a perspective that is fairly anti “behaviourism-of-the-60s-to-early-90s”, but his overall findings and reports are very interesting.

I’ve talked about how setting up extrinsic reward structures always runs the risk of making people optimise their behaviour for the reward, without regard to the desired behavioural change, and this, combined with a difficulty in quantifying what it is that people actually do in any way that assesses quality, tends to make people focus on doing the minimum possible to achieve the reward. In other words, pay people a bonus for producing the most letter boxes a day and, chances are, the person who gets the bonus may have made the worst letter boxes because they were focused on quantity and not quality. The other, and to me very counterintuitive, finding was that associating a reward with something that you previously found desirable can have the unintended consequence of making you value it less, either because if someone has to bribe you to do it, it can’t be that great, or because, like most people, you don’t like being manipulated and your intrinsic motivations are swamped by negative associations with the new extrinsic motivator.

Praise, itself, comes under the microscope as well, as it always carries the risk of making someone focus on pleasing you, rather than doing the job correctly. Praise is also often used as a manipulation tool to enforce compliance (Isn’t Johnny a good boy for sitting so quietly! Why, I think he’s the quietest boy in the room!) and this often leads to resentment, as well as the obvious divisions that occur when you praise one person/group and not other.

One of the most interesting points from this book, which we all know but often don’t consider, is that in an environment where praise is given, the absence of praise can be as negative as punishment because, by definition, if you’re not being praised then you’re not good enough. Rather than leading to some invisible-hand-led revolution into productivity and compliance, all too often this leads to resentment, defiant semi-compliance and disengagement.

Kohn discusses feedback, rather than praise, and focusing on the objective, rather than the subjective. This is not to say that he completely condemns praise, or for that matter reward-as-incentive, but he is strongly opposed to the widespread use that we see today. Yes, the interpretation of praise varies across people and age groups and it’s often  impossible to strip all emotional content from good feedback, but he suggests that being aware of it allows us to be less prone to over-praising, being seen as over-praising and focusing on the essential person (which is largely immutable) rather than a skill or practice that cam be enhanced with feedback. His specific suggestions, including his examples, are:

  1. Don’t praise the person, praise what they do: “That’s a good story” is a good way to discuss good work, rather than saying “You’re such a good writer”, which (especially with children) can be seen as insincere or patronising, especially if the child is aware of the divide between their works and those of others. Personal, rather than activity-driven, praise can lead to a loss of interest in the activity.
  2. Make praise as specific as possible. Focus on the act and call attention to the specific components that are innovative, as an example, or otherwise worthy of notice. “That’s a really nice story” says one thing but by saying “The ending is good where you leave the main character confused as to what happened to him” the student then can see what your standards are and contextualise your feedback.
  3. Avoid phony praise. If you’re genuinely thrilled by something, then (obviously) let people know, but Kohn advises against employing false praise when you catch someone in the act of doing something that you want them to do (behavioural reinforcement). Especially if you use that Glinda the Good Witch voice that most of us remember from our childhood, which is about as genuine and warming as a three dollar bill.
  4. Avoid praise that sets up a competition. Kohn suggests that saying “You’re the best in the class/school/department” in public has just divided the group into One Person and The Rest. Praising someone like this in public leads to competitive behaviour, which will inhibit cooperation, collaboration and all of the educational benefits that you could have obtained had you read your Vygotsky.

The sinister thing about item 4 is that praise handed out in this way gives a lot of power to the rating body. If you, as an individual educator, pick someone out as being the most well-behaved or quietest child, then you have told everyone in the room that they have to please YOU in order to get the nice praise reward. No one is actually reflecting on being quiet or well-beheaved, they’re thinking about what they have to do (most likely the minimum) in order to get that nice warm feeling from you.

Don’t believe me? When someone picks up a mistake in a presentation and suggests a correction, then if they are praised (maybe given a small prize, a jelly bean) Kohn’s thesis suggests that, if you have a subsequent error, more people will spot that mistake because they have switched their behaviour from learning from or listening to you to scanning the notes for mistakes in order to achieve extrinsic reward. I’ve certainly seen that behaviour in class and, worse, I can remember doing that in school when the ‘smart’ kids would get personally praised in class for picking up errors on the blackboard.

I’ll write some more on Kohn for tomorrow. I still have to finish the last of the book and then read through all of the critiques, I’ve read a couple, so I hope to write a later post on this from an opposing viewpoint.

4 Comments on “A (Confusingly) Rewarding Read: Reading Kohn’s Punished By Rewards”

  1. Andreas says:

    The conundrum about reward, is it a student issue or teacher issue? Is it a dilemma which, we, educators have created? When we give praise or reward where it is not due or without sincerity then such behaviour can lead to many of the problem presented here.

    We should be more honest and sincere in giving praises or rewards, and not giving what Kohn called as “phony praise”. I noticed in many schools, teachers also practice “pat yourself on your back” which seems to me rather odd. If as teachers, we can’t single out any particular quality that we had observed worth praising, and not able to convey the praise in a manner that is worth receiving, why give praise at all. We might be devaluating our praises.

    Of course there could be differences between the different age brackets, but I just think we need to learn to better give praises.


    • nickfalkner says:

      I agree with you, Andreas. I think that targeted, specific and objective feedback that encourages people is actually what we mean by ‘praise’ when it’s done correctly and ‘phoney praise’ is what is given most of the time, because it’s easy.

      Thank you for the comment – I hadn’t thought about “pat yourself on the back” but it is a low effort and hollow gesture, isn’t it?


      • Andreas says:

        IMHO yes it is. I can sympathise why it came from, teaching isn’t an easy task, especially in schools. The amount of contents to deliver and circumstances (time, facility, etc) in which the academic transaction must be done, all amount to the pressure a teacher must handle. I am sure there are times when superficial praises are sufficient, but we shouldn’t grow a habit out of it, certainly not to the point of becoming dishonest. After all God detests dishonesty.


  2. […] students, with an emphasis on intrinsic motivation. I’m strongly influenced by the work of Alfie Kohn, unsurprisingly given I’ve already shown my hand on Focault! But there are many other […]


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