I wrote this review of Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes in 1994, for a class in Positive Classroom Discipline.

Alfie Kohn has written a book that flies in the face of conventional wisdom—that disputes a belief most of this society holds so strongly that we don’t even think to question it. He suggests, not that behavior modification does not work, but that it works all too well; that it is a quick fix, a dangerous practice detrimental to creativity, balanced relationships, and the autonomous self; that it is capable, in the long run, of producing people with “a large hole where (their) soul(s) should have been”.1

Kohn suggests that, like King Midas, we have found a way to get what we wanted, but like Midas, we have not been phrasing our requests correctly and have stumbled onto a destructive rather than creative or helpful force. Rewards, Kohn says, in the form of “gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, or other bribes,” successfully manipulate people into compliance with our wishes in terms of surface behavior, but manage to kill any chance at the very traits we are trying to foster:

Let us be honest when we reward or punish by asking ourselves for whom are we doing it (them or us?) and for what (the development of good values or mere obedience?) 2

While it is true that Kohn does cite examples of behaviorist thought (often in the form of interviews with B.F. Skinner, or descriptions of experiments with pigeons or rats), his main target is the oversimplified message of pop behaviorists. He cites as the cores of popular behaviorism the belief that so many of us share, “Do this and you’ll get that.” Complete this job and you will be paid a bonus; finish this worksheet and you’ll get a gold star; be quiet while Mommy is on the phone and you’ll get a brownie with lunch. The problem with this approach, Kohn maintains, is that it removes the focus from this, the task, and centers it on that, the reward.

Having to be bribed or receiving an extrinsic incentive for doing something implies that the thing must not be worth doing in its own right. It also sets up a system where the person receiving the praise/ reward/ incentive learns to look for the same payoff each time they perform the this. Knowing they might not get a reward the next time makes the this, the task, seem less appealing; why do it if I’m not going to get anything for it? Kohn cites numerous studies in which the subjects are rewarded for doing something that the control group does without rewards; afterward, the subjects who received some payment for their participation expressed less interest in the task than the control group. Kohn also links the absence of an expected reward with punishment; “…the fact that rewards can be withheld or withdrawn for failure to act in a specified manner makes the whole experience seem punitive.”3

Additionally, Kohn maintains, rewards rupture relationships. They place the people controlling the type and frequency of the reward in a position of power, with the recipients at their mercy. This can strain both relationships of relative equality and relationships which already have a vertical structure (parent and child, teacher and student):

Someone who is raising or teaching children wants to create a caring alliance with each child, to help him or her feel safe enough to ask for help when problems develop…the same goal applies to the workplace, where it is critical to establish a good working relationship characterized by trust, communication, and the willingness to ask for assistance. This is precisely what rewards and punishments kill. If your parent or teacher or manager is sitting in judgment of what you do, and if that judgment will determine whether good things or bad things happen to you, this cannot help but warp your relationship with that person. You will not be working collaboratively in order to learn or grow; you will be trying to get him or her to approve of what you are doing so that you can get the goodies.4

Rewards attempt to manipulate surface behavior, without concern for underlying reasons; without thought as to why the factory worker might be late, or the student uninterested in a lesson, or the baby crying. If we want to effectively change behavior, Kohn contends, it is important to look at the underlying reasons for that behavior.

Even praise, which Kohn regards as a powerful, subtle tool of manipulation (at least more subtle than tangible gifts) focuses attention on pleasing the giver, rather than the person or task being praised. It encourages production of only the desired behavior, discouraging risk taking or creativity:

Praising children for the work they do may discourage self-directed learning, since it is our verbal rewards, and not love of what they are doing, that drives them. Praising children for the way they behave, meanwhile, gives them no reason to continue acting responsibly when no one is likely to say nice things to them after they do so, and it gives them neither the skills nor the inclination to make their own decisions about what constitutes responsible behavior. 5

The whole question of punishment and reward is caught up in the desire to motivate other people; Kohn contends that you can’t. One cannot produce in another person the desire to do something, or to do it well; “All we can do is set up certain conditions that will maximize the probability of their developing an interest in what they are doing.”6

Manipulating behavior is easy enough, given attractive enough carrots or big enough sticks, but to encourage a person to care about the quality of their work, to encourage creativity or a desire to learn, is far from simple. Approximately one quarter (and the last quarter, at that) of Kohn’s book offers alternatives; these center around examining the content of what we are trying to get other people to do, encouraging collaboration rather than competition, and allowing for as much choice on the part of the worker (student, child) as possible. Kohn encourages a spirit of humanity, remembrance of the fact that when we talk about ‘ways to make them do this’ we are talking about other people, not pets; he suggests examining our plans for a reward/ punishment system from the viewpoint of the person slated to receive these punishments/ rewards. Although, he explains, the alternatives to a reward system depend on the situation, and require (in most cases) more thought and effort than just handing out incentives, Kohn does list some practical suggestions to get managers, teachers, and parents started.

I have not been completely won over by Kohn’s arguments, and I’m not as full of praise as all of the people quoted on the back cover of the book. Kohn, and many other opponents of behavior modification, seem to oversimplify what is not a simple concept or practice. He ignores the fact that one end goal of behavior modification is to wean the person from a dependence on external motivators. (A good behaviorist, if she is successful at her task, will put herself out of business.) Kohn dismisses this, referring to it with derision as a “bait and switch” technique.

Additionally, I think Kohn needs to clarify his thinking, or at least his writing, on the notion of control. When he states that “After all, feeling controlled from the inside isn’t much of an improvement over feeling controlled from the outside”7 it makes me wonder if he just thinks of “control” in general as a big, bad monster; how does self control differ from feeling controlled on the inside, then, and is one any better than the other, or significantly different from external control, in his eyes? I was glad to see that he had included at least and appendix on intrinsic motivation, but I think this discussion was too little, too late; he could have included more on this fairly central topic in the body of his work.

I also wonder if he accepted payment for his work...

Kohn, Alfie. (1993) Punished by Rewards: the Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes Houghton Mifflin Co. ISBN 039565083

1 page 2062 page 1623 page 1754 page 57 5 page 105 6 page 181 7 page 273

Suggested further reading:

Albert, L. (1989)A teacher's guide to cooperative discipline Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service

Glasser, W. (1986) Control Theory in the Classroom New York: Harper and Row, Inc.

Purkey, W. and Novak, J. (1884) Inviting School Success (2nd Ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

CST Approved