5 Reasons to Avoid Rewards and Other Extrinsic Motivators

This is Part Two in a series on the complex issues surrounding extrinsic motivation.

I ended the last post with this paragraph:

The concern over counter-productive extrinsic motivation is that although they may get a student to participate in classroom activities, certain types of extrinsic motivation can interfere with optimal learning. Essentially, when students perform for grades or other rewards, they no longer perceive that their learning has intrinsic value.

Here are the 5 reasons why we should avoid extrinsic rewards.

Reason 1: It Has a Temporary Effect – In one representative study (Birch et al., 1984), young children were introduced to an unfamiliar beverage called “kefir.” Some were just asked to drink it; others were praised lavishly for doing so; a third group was promised treats if they drank enough. Those children who received either verbal or tangible rewards consumed more of the beverage than other children, as one might predict. This reminds me of when you have dry skin and scratch it. It feels wonderful for the first few seconds. But remember, it then quickly starts to hurt and be uncomfortable (but we keep doing it anyway, trying to get that initial great feeling back!).

Reason 2: It Kills Any Interest That Was There – A week after the initial kefir study, the children who received either verbal or tangible rewards found the drink significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas children who were offered no rewards liked it just as much as, if not more than, they had earlier. Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) found that an over-reliance on extrinsic rewards can squelch any pre-existing intrinsic interest, and diminish interest in doing the activity once the rewards are removed.

Reason 3: The Goal Shifts to the Reward – Preexisting interest is killed because the goal shifts from the intrinsic enjoyment of the activity to the reward. In one study, children who enjoyed playing basketball were given rewards for playing. Soon, however, when the rewards were stopped, the children didn’t want to play anymore. The goal of playing basketball shifted from having fun to getting the reward.

Reason 4: People Will Do The Minimum to Get the Reward – Kohn (1993) indicates that at least ten studies have shown that people offered a reward generally choose the easiest possible task. In the absence of rewards, by contrast, children are inclined to pick tasks that are just beyond their current levels of ability.

Reason 5: It Shuts Down Learning – At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). This effect is evident for young children, older children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems. Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) found that an over-reliance on extrinsic rewards can damage the quality of work, impede the ability to be creative or to accomplish non-routine tasks. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward (Kohn, 1994).

These five reasons have got to be sufficient reason to avoid rewards! Why then, do we do them anyway? That will be the focus of my next post in this series on Extrinsic Rewards.


Birch, L.L., Marlin, D.W., & Rotter, J. (1984). Eating as the ‘Means’ Activity in a Contingency: Effects on Young Children’s Food Preference. Child development 55(2, Apr): 431-439. EJ 303 231.

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kohn, A. (1994). The Risks of Rewards. ERIC digest. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “over-justification” hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 28, 129-137.

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.
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3 Responses to 5 Reasons to Avoid Rewards and Other Extrinsic Motivators

  1. Mike,
    I am so glad you spelled this out so clearly. It is just what we have been saying about iPad apps – too many bells and whistles for minimal accomplishments! How do we achieve the sense of value in our learning if we get congratulated for tiny step we take? I will share this with our teachers – it probably needs to be shared with parents, too!!

  2. Pingback: 4 Reasons We (Try To) Use Extrinsic Motivators | Multiple Pathways

  3. Pingback: Counterproductive Extrinsic Motivation: Avoid Bribery Rewards | Multiple Pathways

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