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Punished by Rewards

The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
Written by: Alfie Kohn
Narrated by: Alfie Kohn
Length: 13 hrs and 9 mins
5 out of 5 stars (6 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The basic strategy we use for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summarized in six words: Do this and you'll get that. We dangle goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of people in much the same way we train the family pet.

Drawing on a wealth of psychological research, Alfie Kohn points the way to a more successful strategy based on working with people instead of doing things to them. "Do rewards motivate people?" asks Kohn. "Yes. They motivate people to get rewards." Seasoned with humor and familiar examples, Punished by Rewards presents an argument unsettling to hear but impossible to dismiss.

©1993 Alfie Kohn (P)2017 Tantor

What the critics say

"A clear, convincing demonstration of the shortcomings of pop-behaviorism, written with style, humor, and authority." ( Kirkus)

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  • Michael
  • 2018-05-19

Punished by Rewards

Every now and then a paradigm shifting book comes along my way. It's that time again. I went into this book a bit sceptical, amused by the cover and its premise, and wondering how the author was going to convince me that 'praise' could be detrimental, and other ridiculous ideas that sound like they come from hippy liberals who are still traumatised by never winning a ribbon on school sports day. It's not what you think though. Kohn methodically and scientifically deconstructs behaviourism's punishments and rewards, and shows how they are counter-productive to the goals of those using them, and ultimately demotivating and detrimental to those 'upon' whom they are used. It’s not at all about making all people ‘the same’, or promoting mediocrity – it’s about focusing people on the long term, and on what really matters, and what actually works.

How could rewards be 'bad'? I've always felt the tension, but never known another way. "Kids, clean your room and you'll get a lollipop." It teaches them that cleaning their room is something they wouldn't want to do without a reward, it makes it an obstacle between them and the reward, and it makes them focus on the reward, not the important issue – why you want them to want to have a clean room. Remove "clean room" and insert it with any other task - maths homework, greeting elders, behaving in class, meeting a quota, reading a book, etc., - and switch the reward - A's, praise, raise, stickers, screen time, etc., - and it's the same formula. As he kept saying, "Do this and you'll get that" makes them focus on the 'that', not the 'this'.

The natural response here is, "Well, what's the alternative?" Unfortunately (but logically), the solution isn't a quick fix. It's much more involved and holistic. You don't just replace incentive systems with non-incentive systems, or something like that. You need a paradigm shift from focusing on extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation, which means more discussion, more understanding, more customisation and collaboration, less manipulation, threats and ultimatums. Kohn does give a lot of practical ideas, and many of them don’t require that the whole world change before you implement them – he suggests ways that you can do it ‘less bad’, rather than 100% perfectly, ie., how you can minimise the negative effects of extrinsic incentives while still working within the system. I appreciated that.

On the downside, I thought that Kohn occasionally ignored a few alternatives while trying to universalise an issue, or only took one possible negative interpretation of an action where the reality might be more complex, but these moments were few and I was able to see past them to his research and points and make my own conclusions. It was also difficult (from the audio version) to check his sources and see if he was being selective in the research he used to back his points, but I have enough life experiences of behaviourism to know exactly what he was talking about most of the time. I don’t really need a scientific study to tell me that incentivising my kids for their ‘good’ behaviour teaches them nothing about why they should be ‘good’, other than to get a ‘carrot’. You can’t ‘pay’ them to have a ‘good heart’.

This is a book that’s going to stay with me for a while, and will require some more learning and reflection and adjustment.

As for narration, Kohn was the best choice for narrating this, even though he sounds a bit like Wallace Shawn ("inconceivable!"). He knew exactly how to deliver his message, with the right warmth, harshness, deliberation and humour.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Isaiah St John
  • 2018-05-23

Skeptical at first, I've been won over

I began this book skeptical of Kohn's thesis. I was going to listen with an open mind, but in a world full of people spending 40 hours or more a week chasing a paycheck, I anticipated to be presented with a half-baked theory that stretched thin evidence past limits of sober credulity sprinkled with powerful -- if not quite believable -- anecdotes. Instead, Kohn makes a compelling case, and if anything, the numerous research citations become tiring. If the reader perseveres, Kohn goes on to describe alternative approaches to parenting, teaching, and leadership. This isn't a page-turning beach read, but Kohn has successfully convinced me that some deeply held beliefs are misguided and pointed the path to a better way. And I'm already seeing some small successes in applying these lessons to my everyday life. I'm very glad I purchased this book.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Alethea B.
  • 2019-08-15

Astonishingly good

I don’t think I’ve ever read a more shocking, thought-provoking, tremendously entertaining, deeply needed book that’s so much more than a book — it’s a force for the good. What a wake-up call for a way (a series of ways) to make the world a better place! Full of truth and compassion, this book left me shimmering with hope and excitement.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Will Szal
  • 2019-05-12

Lowering Performance and Enhancing Hierarchy

Punishments and rewards are so ubiquitous they disappear from critical inquiry:
* Grades in academia
* Awards, such as the Nobel Prize
* Performance-based compensation
* Grants based on deliverables
* Fines and jail time in the criminal justice system
* Repercussions in parenting

In his 1993 book, Punished by Rewards, social scientist Alfie Kohn exhaustively reviews hundreds of scientific studies on behaviorism. Counter to the collective faith in "pop behaviorism," he concludes that
Punishments and rewards definitively decrease performance.

To elaborate a bit on some of the instances in which Kohn investigates this topic:
* Letting people set their own rewards doesn't change their maleffect
* Children raised with rewards have lower self-esteem and have less intrinsic motivation
* Praise is no better
* Performance-based rewards result in worse performance than volume-based rewards
* The only instance where rewards don't have a negative effect on performance is when they are eternal and for menial task devoid of creativity or fulfillment (in such instances, we may be better off discontinuing such working conditions to begin with)

To postulate a theory on the effect of rewards:

In the long run, rewards actually deter the behaviors they seek to incentivize.

Rewards compromise personal agency and contribute to feelings of being manipulated.

So why do they dominate our societal infrastructure? Why do families and organizations continue to turn a blind eye to the devastating evidence that punishments and rewards are worse than doing nothing?

Radical behaviorism has returned to infamy, heralded by Shoshana Zuboff's recent book on surveillance capitalism.

You may have been hearing lately about B. F. Skinner, the founder of this school of thought. Skinner believed in a machine-mentality of humans. Given our plastic psychologies, humans can respond to rewards and be turned into machines, but this is not an ethical course of action.

As Zuboff elucidates, Silicon Valley has become the poster child of pop behaviorism. Many founders have become disenchanted with the human-as-machine analogy.

If rewards don't enhance performance, how are they useful?

Rewards establish and reinforce hierarchies of power and control.

They elevate the rewarder and demote the rewarded.

A consideration for why this would be desirable is beyond the scope of this post.

From its inception, the cryptocurrency space has been pervaded by a behaviorist tone.
Section six in Nakamoto's whitepaper is entitled "Incentive," (which has a distinctly different implications than a word such as compensation).

The term "reward" appears a dozen times in the Ethereum whitepaper.

As I have explored before, the mainstream cryptocurrency community has a strong right-wing streak.

So it might come as no surprise to many that token designers might aspire to engineer motivation in the participants of their economies.

Given that the cryptocurrency space is still in its infancy and very much in an experimental phase not yet backed by definitive theory, what is at risk if we do not critically investigate our behaviorist bent?

Cryptocurrency's dependency on a reward-mentality risks perpetuating a machine paradigm that extinguishes the possibility for creative solutions and emergent outcomes.

Given the many existential threats currently faced by humanity, these are risk that we cannot afford. Conversely, what opportunity is there for the creation of new economies grounded in intrinsic motivation?

At my startup, Regen Network, we come from a living-systems paradigm that seeks to develop the will and ableness of stakeholders in our network towards an aim of planetary regeneration. Given that we operate in the spheres of both regenerative agriculture and cryptocurrency, how can we leverage their strengths while reconciling their sometimes-divergent ideologies?
* How do we create an economy where network participants are motivated by intrinsic will as opposed to extrinsic reward?
* In a global economy pervaded by scarcity and insufficiency, how do we shift the economics of agriculture to compensate regenerative behavior, capitalizing regenerative agriculture and funding the right livelihood of land stewards?
* How do we create a technology platform that enlivens human relationship with land (as opposed to further removing humans from a felt-sense of living systems)?

These are some of the questions we're currently grappling with. We hope that others will join us in discernment and architecting of a regenerative world.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • David Madden
  • 2019-05-06

Great for Parents

A powerful book that changed my view of parenting and leadership! I appreciate Alfie
Kohn’s courage and ideas.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Nico Salas
  • Saint Paul, MN USA
  • 2019-04-02

Excellent information, vital message, slow read

I loved the message of this book and the logical arguments laid out by the author. However, it was not the easiest to get through. I almost completely stopped listening 2 or 3 times throughout the book because it felt so dry, even though I knew how revolutionary the message was. I recommend every read this, especially if you’re a worker, parent, employer, or teacher, but be prepared for a slow read at times.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Ruslan Vasylev
  • 2019-03-15

Good book!

Good book. It felt a little too long and, perhaps, repetitive at times. Nevertheless, I'm glad that what needed to be said about the subject was said.

The overall approach feels right. Liberal where things concern peoples/children's choices, yet conservative in virtues.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Daniel Simion
  • 2018-05-17

It’s a must

If you are a parent, teacher or manager, this audiobook should be your top priority.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 2018-01-22

i really liked the ideas the books suggested

i liked the overall idea of the book. i was really interested in particular ways of caring for people in ways that rises their intrinsic motivation and helping them in what they need.
I liked the scientific way of talking about behaviorism and control over people and how it affects the overall performance and feelings.

thanks for the book!

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Grzegorz
  • 2019-03-13

must read for every parent

We practice peaceful parenting, but never realized that praise can be damaging. One of the most important book for parents there is. The other one is "unconditional parenting" same author.