Rewards and Incentives Can Backfire

Rewards and Incentives Can Backfire

Rewards and Incentives are Gateways to Behavior-Change

One of the great struggles of life is to get others to do the things they should, but don’t want to—getting your daughter to cleanup her bedroom or do homework in her least favorite subject, convincing your employee to do a task in the manner that your company expects, and so forth.

One tried-and-true technique to get reluctant people to do what they should is to hold back an incentive. For example, parents who want children to eat vegetables at dinner could stipulate that they eat their vegetables (the non-preferred behavior) before they can eat their desserts (the preferred behavior.)

Preferred Behaviors Can Be Used to Reinforce Unpreferred Behaviors

This motivational rule was formally studied by the American psychologist David Premack. The Premack Principle, or the “relativity theory of reinforcement,” makes it easier to do an unpleasant activity by putting a pleasant activity right after it. In this manner, a reinforcer could observe what an individual chooses to do voluntarily and offer that favored task as an incentive to gain compliance or to increase the likelihood of another less-favored behavior occurring.

Grandma's Rule or Premack Principle: Relativity Theory of Reinforcement As expected, although an academic, Premack enjoyed a very successful vocation as a highly paid “productivity expert” dispensing age-old techniques. He traveled around the country and advised thousands of corporate executives to manipulate themselves into becoming more motivated and more productive by organizing their day such that they schedule first anything that’s unpleasant and important and then reward themselves with something they really like doing.

Grandma’s Rule: “Johny, Finish Your Homework Before You Watch TV”

That a high probability behavior could be used to reinforce participation in a low probability behavior is the unassuming “Grandma’s Rule”—arguably the most universally recognized principle in the field of behavior change. Workplaces use the grandma’s rule by offering future “plum” assignments for employees who “pay their dues” by doing “dull and dirty” work in the present.

The grandma’s rule anchors in the fact that people, including children, are willing to do something they don’t really want to do if that’s the only way they can do something that they really want to do. Absent this established reinforcement, people left to their own devices tend to do what they like doing instead of doing things they don’t like doing even though latter are more beneficial.

Preferred Behaviors Can Be Used to Reinforce Unpreferred Behaviors

The Hidden Costs of Rewards and Incentives

Rewards and incentives can guide and modify behavior. The goal of offering rewards for positive reinforcement is to have the unpleasant tasks become less and less unpleasant. Therefore, the true measure of the effectiveness of any reward is how well the preferred behaviors become internalized. For example, offering rewards to children for reading books is not merely to get them to read books inside the classroom, but to internalize the reading behavior with the goal that they read even during the summer when they don’t have to read for school.

Offering rewards for motivating people to do unlikable tasks could sometimes become counterproductive. In what psychologists call “the overjustification effect,” a reward, instead of motivating, could fortify a person’s revulsion for the task. In other words, the reward could reinforce the belief that the task can’t be worth doing for itself.

Rewards Can Backfire

Overjustification effect is controversial because it disputes the general principles of motivational psychology and behavioral reinforcement—especially in the contexts of parenting, education, and the workplace.

Idea for Impact: Locating the pleasure in the future, when the reward will be imparted, could turn the present-moment doing of an unpleasant task into tedium. For example, insisting that your child eat broccoli for being rewarded with dessert could make her hate broccoli even more.

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