The Bonus Effect – Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn in brilliant form once again, reaffirming his place as the most eloquent writer on motivation this century, this time taking on the ‘bonus effect’ – the idea that giving rewards makes those rewards themselves more desirable while simultaneously devaluing the activity leading to them. It seems that, though early research was equivocal, more recent studies show that this is real:

“When people are promised a monetary reward for doing a task well, the primary outcome is that they get more excited about money. This happens even when they don’t meet the standard for getting paid. And when a reward other than money is used — raffle tickets for a gift box, in this case — the effect is the same: more enthusiasm about what was used as an incentive.”

Also:

“The more closely a reward is conditioned on how well one has done something, the more that people come to desire the reward and, as earlier research has shown, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

As Kohn summarizes:

‘If the question is “Do rewards motivate people?” the answer is “Sure — they motivate people to get rewards.”’

We have long known that performance-related pay is a terrible idea, and that performance-related bonuses achieve the precise opposite of their intended effects. This is a great explanation of more of the reasons behind that empirical finding.

As it happens, Athabasca University operates just such a system, flying in the face of five decades of research that shows unequivocally that it is positively self-defeating. It’s bad enough when used to drive workers on a production line. For creative and problem-solving work, it is beyond ridiculous. Of course, as Kohn notes, exactly the same dynamic underlies most of our teaching too:

“If we try to justify certain instructional approaches by saying they’ll raise test scores, we’re devaluing those approaches while simultaneously elevating the importance of test scores. The same is true of education research that uses test results as the dependent variable.”

The revolution cannot come soon enough.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/bonus/

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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