I’ve been reading (and listening to) a lot of books lately. I often read things that challenge my views on life, but this time around I’m reading the people who represent my tribe. One who has captured my thinking is Alfie Kohn.

He wrote “Punished by Rewards” more than a decade ago. Research since has continued to support his premise that rewards and incentives are bad for long term motivation. In fact, the data is so one-sided that we’re acting like the people who continue to smoke in the face of overwhelming evidence of the damage it does. We don’t even have the excuse of addiction.

As I contemplate the implications of reward data, I keep trying to come up with an alternative. So far I’m stuck. I get that we need to fund ways to promote intrinsic motivators. I just don’t know how to do it. Almost every aspect of our society is driven by external incentives. Capitalism itself is driven by external incentives. I can see how my intrinsic motivation works, but I can’t see how to tap into the intrinsic motivation of others. Perhaps that’s why society continues to use this Pavlovian approach even though the evidence is mounting against it. We’ve got to do something, right?

Listen as you go thru your day. Everyone around you is talking about rewards, awards, and other incentives. One guy offers his kid $10 for every A he brings home and the kid’s grades go up. Another offers a prize to the top sales rep this month and sales go up across the board. A wife promises her husband the wild thing if he gets her another piece of jewelry and he buys her a necklace. Isn’t this proof that these things work? Why does all of the research show otherwise? Again, when I think about the impact these things have on me, I realize how short term they are. I also realize that I come away from each situation where I’ve been “incentivized” to do something that I didn’t want to do feeling a little less excited about the person who provided the incentive.


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