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Carrots and Sticks


Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net   Not long ago, a teacher friend of mine called to ask my opinion about something. "We're having a school spirit week," she told me. "All of the classes are making posters and wearing school colors. I thought it would be a good idea to make it a contest and offer incentives (her word, not mine) but some of the other teachers think that's not a good idea. What do you think?"             Well, I think school spirit week could be a lot of fun. It could increase the students' sense of community and help them feel pride in their school. All good stuff, right? Yep-until you get to the "incentives." And then everything falls apart.             It seems pretty obvious that if you want to encourage a particular behavior, you reward it-and if you want to discourage a behavior you punish it. Right? Well, that is certainly how the world seems to work. Parents offer allowance and pay kids for grades, chores, and cooperation. Teachers offer tickets, stars, lunches, and trips to the prize box for good behavior. Managers give employees bonuses for profit and production. And in the short-term, it seems pretty effective. When you take a closer look, however, it doesn't work at all. In fact, scientists and researchers have known for years that the carrot-and-stick approach is downright dangerous. Why has it taken so long for families and schools to catch on?             A guy by the name of Daniel Pink has written a fascinating book called "Drive" which examines the truth about rewards. It turns out that the science of rewards is pretty scary. In fact, the time-honored system of carrots-and-sticks promotes bad behavior, creates addiction, and encourages short-term thinking at the expense of long-term creativity and growth. If you take a task that someone enjoys doing-something called "intrinsic motivation", by the way-and offer a reward for it, that person will do less and less of the thing they originally enjoyed. One study rewarded three-year-olds who loved to draw for drawing pictures-and over time, the three-year-olds drew less and less.             It turns out that rewards can be useful for repetitive or mechanical tasks. But if you're trying to encourage creativity, learning, or commitment to something greater, the side-effects of rewards far outweigh the benefits. Goals imposed by other people, such as grades, sales targets, or standardized test scores often lead to cheating, short-cuts, and a decrease in ingenuity and creativity. Why? By offering a reward, you send a clear signal that the task must be undesirable. If it weren't, you wouldn't need a reward, right? And once you've offered a reward, you create an expectation that a reward should be forthcoming every time the task is done.             In fact, rewards trigger the exact same systems in the brain that addictions do. As Pink puts it, "cash rewards and shiny trophies can provide a delicious jolt of pleasure at first, but the feeling soon dissipates-and to keep it alive, the recipient requires ever larger and more frequent doses." This is why the child who was thrilled with a quarter to take out the trash soon wants a dollar-and eventually won't do the job at all.             Punishment isn't so great, either, by the way. In one study, parents were told that they would be fined if they were late picking their children up from a child care center. The number of late pick-ups actually skyrocketed. Why? Before, parents made an effort to be on time out of consideration for their child's teacher. When they were fined, they pushed back a bit-and felt they were entitled to the extra time because they paid for it.             So what does this mean for my friend who wanted to "incentivize" her school spirit week? It means that if you really want to encourage hard work, learning, creativity, and commitment, don't offer a reward. Invite the students to get involved for the sheer fun of it. See how creative they can be, and what ideas they have. They'll actually be more motivated and have more fun if you leave the stickers and prizes out of it.             By the way, there is one sort of reward that does seem to work, according to the research. If you wait until after a task is completed and then offer connection and words of genuine encouragement and gratitude, people respond well. If that sounds familiar, it's because Positive Discipline and other Adlerian approaches to behavior have been saying that for decades: connection comes before correction, and encouragement is more powerful than praise and rewards.             If you're curious about this, I highly recommend Daniel Pink's book, "Drive."  You can also search on You Tube for Pink's name and you'll turn up some great short videos explaining more on the science of carrots and sticks. If you're a parent or you have a child in a local classroom, you owe it to yourself to learn more. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.