Brain Bulletin #60 - Punished by Reward

in Brain Bulletin

How do you persuade a child to complete a homework assignment? How do you persuade employees to embrace a change?

How do you persuade anyone to do anything?

We often use rewards. But do they really work? Do they really persuade the brain? I read an interesting study this week on this topic.

Stanford University rounded up two groups of school children. The children were given paper, pencils, and crayons and they were asked to create pictures. The first group was told that they would receive medals for good effort. The second group was just asked to create pictures.

Several weeks later the two groups were reassembled. Drawing materials were again handed out and the scientists measured how long the children played with them. What happened next was a surprise. The children who had received the reward of a medal spent much less time drawing than the children who were not given a reward.

Why did this happen?

It seems like the little voice in your brain says, "Well, let's see....they usually give me rewards for things I don't like doing". This effect has been replicated in many studies. The conclusion seems to be that if you reward children for doing something the long term result can be de-motivating. The "carrot and stick" approach only seems to produce short term change.

It appears to destroy the very behaviour that it is designed to encourage.

I don't think adults are much different.

What does work? Unpredictable celebrations. Something like, "Hey you did a great job on that assignment! How would you like to....." Or, "You put a lot of effort into this. How would you like to celebrate?" This approach seems to create long term change! Even simple, small celebrations work wonders on your brain.

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January has been a busy month so far. My first presentation of 2010 was to 150 teachers in Colorado. They were a great, energetic group! I then spoke to all the Grade 10's at Sardis and David Thompson Secondary Schools. Yesterday I had the opportunity to share about the brain at the Vancouver Financial Management Institute. I am looking forward to speaking in Japan next month...Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Nagoya. The sushi should be great.

I also started rereading one of my favorite "brain" books of the decade: Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. If you have not read this run, don't walk, to you nearest book store!

Well, I'm off to take my brain for a run....