Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes review

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a book whose thesis is basically: rewards don’t work and are bad for people. It’s pretty interesting, and I’d recommend it with some caveats. (see below)

Saying “if you do this, you get that” makes you think of the “this” as just a means to get the “that”. It saps your intrinsic motivation for “this”, so once the reward is taken away (or you get used to the reward) you want to do “this” less. In fact, if “this” is any sort of creative task it can make you do a worse job at “this”!

He also discusses how rewards are generally controlling (and/or condescending), which I somewhat buy.

Odds and ends:
– Unexpected rewards are much less destructive than rewards that people expect; of course this is hard to maintain because people will start expecting them!
– The author points out that grades in school act as rewards, so we should try to get rid of them. Of course, that’s a bit ambitious, so at least parents can focus on what their kids are learning at school instead of what grades they’re making.
– One common objection is “if you don’t reward people, they’ll just be lazy and won’t do anything”. But people are generally inclined to try to succeed at something moderately difficult. (not too easy, not too hard)
– The author cites numerous studies where promising money for completing puzzles, playing games, etc. works initially, but once the reward is withdrawn people get less interested in the puzzle, etc. than people who never got a reward to begin with.
– There’s a whole section about praise and how it’s basically just like a reward (i.e. bad). This makes sense in a work setting, and I’ve been trying to apply it at home with the kids by showing them unconditional love and showing interest when they accomplish something. But it’s sooooo hard not to just say “Good job!” like a thousand times a day!
– The demotivating effect of rewards happens even if you reward yourself for something! Yikes.
– If you’re talking about an activity that you don’t care if your child has an intrinsic motivation for, rewards are pretty OK. (the money quote here is: “a regimen of positive reinforcement for potty-training a toddler is not likely to do lasting harm…Why? Because we are not terrible concerned to instill a lifelong love of defecation.” Hah!)
– Instead of using reward to get someone to do an uninteresting task, the recommendation is to acknowledge that the task doesn’t seem interesting, offer a meaningful reason that it needs to be done anyway, and give the person as much control as possible about how to do the task.
– Giving out a reward for a competition is especially bad, because the winner will lose intrinsic motivation, and everyone else, well, didn’t win.
– Praising someone for a result is especially bad, but praising for effort, while less bad, still has all the problems listed above. But if you are going to praise, he recommends:
– Don’t praise people (“you’re so good!”), only what they do
– Make praise as specific as possible
– Avoid phony praise
– Avoid praise that sets up a competition
– The author is also not a fan of “natural consequences” because he sees them as controlling. Which, I can kind of get (the examples he gave were not great examples of natural consequences, to be honest), but parenting is hard and while he does offer some suggestions I’m not sold on how realistic they are.
– Instead, if you’re having a discipline problem with your child, he recommends looking at the content of your request (are you asking your child to do something that’s really necessary, or just to do something because it’s convenient for you?), try to collaborate with your child to mutually problem solve (or if it’s something you can’t budge on like a safety issue, at least explain why they can’t run out into traffic), and give the child as much choice as possible.
– Praising a child when they achieve something is a problem not only for the reasons above but also because it signals conditional acceptance – they may think they’re only valued because of their accomplishments. Children need unconditional love!

Now, the bad news. I found the content of the book interesting, but it was a real slog to get through. One reason is the usual tiredness from having two kids; hopefully this doesn’t apply to you 🙂 Another problem for me was the way the book is structured. It talks about how rewards don’t work in the workplace, at school, and for raising children, and the last few chapters are about what does work in these situations. By the time I got to these last few chapters I had kinda given up hope on ever doing anything right (at least in regards to raising children) because it seemed like anything I did would mess up my kids. Reading the last few chapters did help, to be fair.

My main problem, though, is that the book is really long – the paperback version is 430 pages, although there are a lot of footnotes. I’ve run into this problem before with books that are trying to build an unconventional case for something and the book gets very repetitive citing study after study after study. I understand why the author did this, but I almost wish there were two versions of the book; one that includes all the studies, and one that summarizes and gets to the point a bit faster. I don’t know what a reasonable solution to this problem is, but it does make me a little hesitant to recommend the book without adding “but feel free to skip to the next section when you get bored”.

Also, this is not a good book to read right before you have to set goals for performance evaluations at work 🙂


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