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Current loctn: reading list > punished by rewards

Alfie Kohn.  Punished by Rewards.  Houghton-Mifflin, New York. 1993.  397pp.

Kohn attacks the unquestioning acceptance of rewards and incentive plans as an approach to guiding behavior. 

According to Kohn, the theory of operant conditioning promoted by behavioral psychologists such as B.F. Skinner is the typical "objective" justification (although not the origin) of this practice.  Kohn begins by explaining why the application of simple experiments on the effect of food-based reward in rats, etc. cannot be safely extrapolated to conclusions about human behavior.

Kohn then continues to an examination of research literature on human responses to rewards. He indicates that the majority of experiments designed to test the effects of rewards offer results which contradict our usual assumption that incentive plans and reward systems are useful.  In fact, nearly every research experiment designed to quantify the benefits of reward shows instead that they are counterproductive. This typically contradicts the expectations of the involved researchers. It appears that rewards work best in where increased repetitions of simple, non-creative tasks is desired. Situations that require creativity and originality typically suffer from use of reward-based motivation. Kohn goes on to outline his thoughts as to why rewards do not work as we typically expect. 

Kohn’s presentation of the facts about human motivation and psychology happen to jive very well with the proposals of W.E. Deming concerning how managers should treat employees to ensure high commitment and high quality products.  According to well-versed education researchers I know, Kohn’s use and interpretation of the research literature on this subject is dead-on correct, and his strongly stated conclusions do in fact represent current thinking on the subject.