Punished by Rewards

The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes

(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993 / 1999 / 2018) (Tantor audio, 2017)
2018 and 1999 editions feature new Afterwords by the author

Punished by Rewards - Alfie Kohn

Our basic strategy 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 that we train the family pet.

In this groundbreaking book, Alfie Kohn shows that while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails and even does lasting harm.  Our workplaces and classrooms will continue to decline, he argues, until we begin to question our reliance on a theory of motivation derived from laboratory animals.

Drawing from hundreds of studies, Kohn demonstrates that people actually do inferior work when they are enticed with money, grades, or other incentives. Programs that use rewards to change people’s behavior are similarly ineffective over the long run. Promising goodies to children for good behavior can never produce anything more than temporary obedience. In fact, the more we use artificial inducements to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what we’re bribing them to do. Rewards turn play into work, and work into drudgery.

Step by step, Kohn marshals research and logic to prove that  pay-for-performance plans cannot work; the more an organization relies on incentives, the worse things get. Parents and teachers who care about helping students to learn, meanwhile, should be doing everything possible to help them forget that grades exist. Even praise can become a verbal bribe that gets kids hooked on our approval.

Rewards and punishments are just two sides of the same coin — and the coin doesn’t buy very much. What is needed, Kohn explains, is an alternative to both ways of controlling people. The final chapters offer a practical set of strategies for parents, teachers,  and managers that move beyond the use of carrots or sticks.

Seasoned with humor and familiar examples, Punished by Rewards presents an argument that is unsettling to hear but impossible to dismiss.

Table of Contents

PART ONE – The Case Against Rewards
1 Skinner-Boxed:  The Legacy of Behaviorism
2 Is It Right to Reward?
3 Is It Effective to Reward?
4 The Trouble with Carrots:  Four Reasons Rewards Fail
5 Cutting the Interest Rate:  The Fifth Reason Rewards Fail
6 The Praise Problem
PART TWO – Rewards in Practice
7 Pay for Performance: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Work in the Workplace
8 Lures for Learning: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Work in the Classroom
9 Bribes for Behaving:  Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Help Children Become Good People
PART THREE – Beyond Rewards
10 Thank God It’s Monday: The Roots of Motivation in the Workplace
11 Hooked on Learning:  The Roots of Motivation in the Classroom
12 Good Kids Without Goodies
Afterword 1999
Afterword 2018
Appendix A:  A Conversation with B.F. Skinner
Appendix B:  What Is Intrinsic Motivation?
Appendix C:  The Behaviorists Talk Back

What people are saying

“Wonderfully clear, provocative, and satisfying. Alfie Kohn’s groundbreaking exploration of the harmful effects of rewards should be mandatory reading for every parent and teacher.”

— Adele Faber, co-author of
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

“Once again, Alfie Kohn destroys a universal myth — this time convincingly exposing the destructive effects of using rewards to control children and adults. Every parent, teacher, and manager should read this book — and hurry.”

— Thomas Gordon, founder of
Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.)

“Unorthodox, occasionally utopian, revolutionary in its implications, this eye-opening critique of behaviorist reward-and-punishment psychology will challenge and enlighten parents, teachers, managers, and the general reader.”

— Publishers Weekly [starred review]

“A compelling argument that the use of rewards is counterproductive in raising children, teaching students, and managing workers….A clear, convincing demonstration…written with style, humor, and authority.”

— Kirkus

“Kohn…marshals impressive theoretical support and, at the same time, uses humor disarmingly to argue his case.”

— Booklist

Where to buy it