Why We Should Avoid Rewards Even for Boring Tasks

From Chapter 5: “Cutting the Interest Rate”
of Punished by Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1993/2018)

Why We Should Avoid Rewards Even for Boring Tasks

By Alfie Kohn


. . . . “If we’re worried about reducing intrinsic motivation, then what’s the problem with giving people rewards for doing things they don’t find interesting?”

It is true that rewards are most likely to kill interest where there is the most interest to be killed; if intrinsic motivation is already at rock-bottom, it’s hard to lower it any further. It is also true that short-term interest in tedious (and extremely simple) tasks can sometimes be enhanced by offering a reward for working on them.1 Finally, it is true that the most destructive way to use extrinsic motivators is to offer them for doing something that is potentially interesting in its own right.

(Perhaps a better way to put this last point is to say that it is most important to avoid rewarding people for engaging in an activity or behavior that we would like them to find intrinsically motivating. Thus, a regimen of positive reinforcement for potty-training a toddler is not likely to do lasting harm — putting aside for a moment the question of its manipulativeness and the issue of whether children should be induced to use the toilet before they are ready. Why? Because we are not terribly concerned to instill a lifelong love of defecation. But the use of rewards for reading, writing, drawing, acting responsibly and generously, and so on is cause for concern, not only because these things could be intrinsically motivating but because we want to encourage rather than extinguish that motivation. Extrinsic motivators are most dangerous when offered for something we want children to want to do.)

All of this is true. But does it amount to an invitation to reward people for doing things that are not highly interesting? No. Here’s why:

1. If we are concerned about performance as well as interest, remember that a number of studies have shown that while extrinsic motivators nearly always reduce creativity, they sometimes cause people to do a poorer job at fairly routine (and presumably uninteresting) tasks, too, such as memorizing, distinguishing between similar drawings and patterns, and so on. Recall also that rewards are generally ineffective at leading to the long-term adoption of uninteresting behaviors, such as using seatbelts. Even when our sole concern is getting people interested in a boring task, rewards cannot always be counted on to help. In one study, for example, “extrinsic rewards were no more effective in increasing the motivation of children whose initial level of interest was low than were simple requests to work on the tasks.”2

But let’s take the point one step further. It is often possible to devise creative, interesting ways of doing things that are of themselves quite dull. A friend of mine managed the mind-numbing memorization of anatomy required in medical school by inventing elaborate fables in which different parts and systems of the body played starring roles.3 One psychologist has described creative ways to make mowing the lawn less boring.4 Clerical tasks can seem less tedious if they are turned into a game — devising more efficient techniques, coming up with inventive ways of keeping track of what is still to be done, and so forth.

I do not mean to imply that everything we have to do can be made enthralling, or that people who work at menial jobs have only themselves to blame when they become bored. Some tasks are less interesting than others. Rather, the point is that whatever opportunities do exist for reconfiguring a dull task are put at risk when rewards are used. Extrinsic motivators have the capacity to reduce interest not only in the task itself but in the strategies we might use to brighten the task.

Incidentally, it is important to distinguish between tasks that are inherently uninteresting from those that certain individuals happen not to be interested in. Even if people who are bored by a task seem to respond to a reward, it seems unwise to use artificial inducements to try to interest someone in an activity that other people already enjoy on its merits.5 It would be far more productive to ask why he or she is bored. (Perhaps the task is simply too easy or too hard for her, in which case adjusting the level of challenge would seem to make more sense than offering a bribe.) It also undermines the possibility that she will find herself intrinsically motivated at some later point.

The suggestion has been [made] that extrinsic rewards may enhance the interest and thus the learning of a person with low initial interest in the problem or task at hand, even though their use with highly motivated individuals is unwarranted. This may be so; but if, as we suspect, these rewards create a context that elicits a different pattern of interaction with the task, they may be a poor way to “motivate” even uninterested children. If the offer of rewards produces . . . a more superficial interaction of subject with task — then we may be loath to use them even to encourage uninterested children to “learn.”6

Look at it another way: someone who is obliged to work on something uninteresting may, in fact, experience precious little sense of self-determination. The last thing this person needs is to be controlled further, which is what rewards do.

2. In practice, the idea that we can surgically carve out what is boring in life and use extrinsic motivators here (and only here) is naive. First, when teaching or managing a group of people, it is no easy matter to individualize the use of rewards so that they are offered only to those people who are yawning. (“Bill gets a bonus for finishing his report because his intrinsic motivation is low. You’re already interested in it, Hillary, so you get nothing.”)7

Second, even if every individual had similar interests, a given topic will usually contain some elements that are much more interesting than others. Consider elementary school math. Memorizing the multiplication table is not a lot of fun, but exploring mathematical concepts is highly stimulating and very much like a game when presented by a talented teacher. How do we dangle A’s in front of children to learn the former and abruptly cease giving grades so as not to kill intrinsic motivation in the latter? The practical problem is compounded when enjoyable and monotonous components are contained within a single task, such as writing a report.

If, therefore, we assume it is acceptable to offer rewards when intrinsic motivation is low, we will end up giving them to some people who are already motivated, or for some activities that are already motivating. Decreased interest is the likely result. Getting people to finish boring tasks more quickly (by promising a reward) simply is not worth it if in the process we turn potentially interesting tasks into boring ones.

3. The practice of rewarding people conveniently spares us from asking hard questions about why we are asking people to do things that are devoid of interest in the first place. Let me immediately concede that there may be tedious jobs that must be done in order for a society, or even a household, to function. Likewise, there may be things we decide children ought to learn that hold little appeal for them at the time. But to acknowledge such necessity in the abstract is very different from assuming that every deadening job to which people are consigned every working day of their lives has to be done (or has to be organized as it is at present), or that every fill-in-the-blank waste-of-the-time assignment must be given to students just because that was what we had to do when we were in school.

We need to ask, Which boring tasks really are indispensable? And why? Instead, we take on faith that some people will have to chop up an endless conveyor belt of chicken carcasses regardless of what it does to their health and sanity. We accept without question that children have to memorize the state capitals even though they could look up that information whenever they need it. Like any other tool for facilitating the completion of a questionable task, rewards offer a “how” answer to what is really a “why” question. “Reach for the reinforcements if people find the task uninteresting” is a slogan that perpetuates the status quo and allows us, as teachers and managers and citizens in a democracy, to continue taking certain things for granted.

4. Even when we have decided that a particular uninteresting task simply must be completed, artificial inducements are not our only option. There are other ways, less manipulative and more respectful, to encourage people to do things that they are unlikely to find intrinsically motivating. The rule of thumb for getting people to internalize a commitment to working at such tasks is to minimize the use of controlling strategies. Edward Deci and his colleagues have proposed a three-pronged approach: First, imagine the way things look to the person doing the work and acknowledge candidly that it may not seem especially interesting. Second, offer a meaningful rationale for doing it anyway, pointing, perhaps, to the long-term benefits it offers or the way it contributes to some larger goal. Third, give the individual as much control as possible over how the work gets done.8

The last of these suggestions brings us back full circle since the deprivation of self-determination helps to explain the damage that extrinsic motivators do. An affirmative emphasis on giving people choice will play a central role in the last three chapters of this book — on managing, teaching, and parenting — which lay out practical ways to achieve the advantages that cannot be realized through the use of behaviorist tactics. . . .


[For full citations, please see the Reference section of Punished by Rewards.]

1. For example, see Boggiano et al., 1982; and the brief discussion in Barrett and Boggiano, 1988, p. 295. But see the following note for a study that failed to find this. Also, whether short-term interest in pursuing the task is equivalent to true intrinsic motivation is not clear.

2. Danner and Lonky, 1981, Experiment 2. The quotation appears on p. 1049.

3. Mark Lepper’s more recent work concerns the promotion of students’ intrinsic motivation, and the use of fantasy scenarios is one of the techniques he describes. See, for example, Lepper and Hodell, 1989, pp. 92-93; and Lepper and Cordova, 1992.

4. “Can the speed at which I mow the yard or a part of it provide feedback to my actions? Can I tell how neatly I do this job in comparison to other times? Is it possible to develop rules about how to proceed — for instance by following a circular path, or a zigzag pattern? Or do I rather want to develop rules for my physical movements as I walk behind the machine?….Supposing I decide I want to cut parallel swaths in the grass, making a U-turn at the end of each run without overlapping any of the runs, getting as close to the trees as possible without nicking the bark. As soon as I set up these tacit rules, they define what stimuli will be relevant for me to watch for. They also define what will be negative and positive feedback under the rules. When this is done, I am ready to go; and mowing grass becomes a moderately enjoyable activity with its own set of intrinsic rewards” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1978, p. 214).

5. The relevance of children’s interest in the task to their responsiveness to rewards was demonstrated by Loveland and Olley, 1979. But Lepper’s original study found that rewards had to be presented after the task was completed if there was any hope of boosting the interest even of children who were bored; everyone lost interest when rewards were promised in advance (Lepper et al., 1973, p. 135).

6. Condry and Chambers, 1978, p. 64.

7. “In situations in which an entire classroom is organized around reinforcement contingencies, it is extremely difficult to individualize contingencies sufficiently so that each child’s interests and abilities are taken into account. Without such individualization, it will surely be the case that reinforcement is sometimes available, for some children, for some activities they would eagerly engage in without it” (Schwartz, 1982b, pp. 53-54).

8. Deci et al., 1994.

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