What's It All About, Alfie?

  Jerome Shea       July 14, 2007      Weekend Wonk

No, not that Alfie. I just couldn’t resist the title.

While I was wrestling last week with the whole issue of incentives (“Carrots and Sticks”), a friend steered me to a remarkable book—Punished by Rewards—by one Alfie Kohn. Kohn is an erstwhile academic who, according to his website, spends all his time these years researching, writing, and lecturing at large. He is also a maverick, a contrarian, which is always tonic.

Needless to say, you should read the whole book. It is a rich feast, and Shea is offering you only a meager snack here.

The thesis of Punished by Rewards is that incentives, as we usually mean the word, are flat wrong. They are injurious to relationships, they are demeaning to the project at hand, they gloss over real problems that should be addressed, they are addictive, and they don’t even work . This last struck me as demonstrably wrong, especially after all those AP high school students testified that canned goods or used clothes came flooding in once the teacher promised a pizza party or extra English points for a successful charity drive (Kohn does concede that incentives often work in the short run). Moreover, his position just seemed counterintuitive. If you want to energize your sales staff, what better way than offering the carrot of a Caribbean cruise to the guy who hustles the most widgets? If Susie’s grades are dropping, promise her an iPhone if she gets them back up by the end of the term. If little Jerome won’t eat his Brussels sprouts, then—a stick this time—he’ll just have to sit at the table until he does eat them or hell freezes. (Boy, do I remember that one!)*

Kohn puts it in a nutshell (something he is very good at): “Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.” Again, you may say, what’s wrong with that, as long as it works? With that telling remark, you have just marked yourself as an American. I am not the first to point out that for all our admirable cultural traits, our one historical contribution to psychology is behaviorism, and our one contribution to philosophy is pragmatism. That says almost more than you need to know. The end does justify the means (as long as nobody gets hurt, of course). And we want results and we want them now. We are a people, after all, who conquered and settled a whole continent. Thank goodness we didn’t award the Way West contract to a bunch of existentialists!

Punished by Rewards is in large part a reaction to the behaviorism—B.F. Skinner and his rats and pigeons—that Kohn was exposed to early on. He protests that people are not rats and pigeons, that people are not pets (Kohn: “When we call out a hearty ‘Good girl!’ in response to a child’s performance, the most appropriate reply would seem to be ‘Woof!’”). I am sure he would concede that it would do no good to have a heart-to-heart with Fido on the moral goodness of pooping on the grass rather than on the carpet. Carrots and sticks—a doggy treat, a rolled up newspaper—do work with dogs (the jury is still out on cats), but people require and deserve better. And incentives usually backfire. Students that are promised rewards for reading X number of books will sooner rather than later choose the shortest books with most pictures that they possibly can. As someone opined about a program to award pizza coupons to summer readers, eventually you will wind up with fat kids who hate reading!

And he sees little difference between the carrot and the stick (perhaps it’s appropriate that they share the same cudgel shape). Both are manipulative: both say, “Do what I say and don’t ask why.” The stick says it with a glare, the carrot with an unctuous smile, but they both say it.

A personal note here. I was raised in a very loving home, and I doubt that my parents reflected on what those damn Brussels sprouts really represented. Did I have some rare medical condition that made it imperative that I eat Brussels sprouts? Kohn, I suspect, would suggest that my parents should have stepped back and asked themselves why it was so all-fired important that their 6-year-old eat those Brussels sprouts. What was important—and, good people that they were, I think they would be embarrassed by this—was not Brassica aleracea gemmifera but my abject obedience. But, anyway, hell always froze first. Nobody really won after all.

Incentives also demean the very thing that they pretend to promote. Think about it. Incentives say, “We know that doing good works or studying French or selling widgets is deadly dull, so let us sweeten the deal for you.” And if your undertaking itself is stultifying, what does that say about you, my friend? We should instead think of the wonderful opposite case: “[This job is so rewarding in itself that] sometimes I can’t believe they pay me besides!”

Now I have finally let the cat out of the bag. Kohn makes a crucial distinction between extrinsic incentives (bad) and intrinsic incentives (good). An intrinsic incentive is one that is inseparable from the project itself. Virtue is indeed its own reward, and those AP students who were in spiritual turmoil about that seeming paradox need to be reassured. The good feeling that one gets by doing good is NOT the same as a pizza party. What the teachers are challenged to do—and it is a lot harder than the quick-fix gimmick of extrinsic incentives—is to explain to their charges what magnanimity means and how generosity and sacrifice in themselves will fulfill their souls and make them genuinely better people, ready to take their place among good grown-ups.**

*Somewhere in my mid-twenties I discovered that Brussels sprouts were palatable if not tasty. But if you try to make me eat liver, I’ll pop you one. You’ve been warned.

**And it might not be that hard, the idealism of adolescence often bordering on the scary.

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