Extrinsic Rewards Reduce Intrinsic Motivation: Using Psychology to Pick Up More Followers

One of the first blog posts I wrote five years ago: You Get the Behavior You Reward, featured the wonderful book from Alfie Kohn: Punished by Rewards – The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, As, Praise, and Other Bribes.” Here’s a brief summary of the book from its web site:

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.

One of the stories from that book has always stuck with me, and for some reason, I found myself thinking about it again this week. Here’s the story:

Each day an elderly man endured the insults of a crowd of ten-year-olds as they passed his house on their way home from school. One afternoon, after listening to another round of jeers about how stupid and ugly and bald he was, the man came up with a plan. He met the children on his lawn the following Monday and announced that anyone who came back the next day and yelled rude comments about him would receive a dollar. Amazed and excited, they showed up even earlier on Tuesday, hollering epithets for all they were worth. True to his word, the old man ambled out and paid everyone. “Do the same tomorrow,” he told them, “and you’ll get twenty-five cents for your trouble.” The kids thought that was still pretty good and turned out again on Wednesday to taunt him. At the first catcall, he walked over with a roll of quarters and again paid off his hecklers. “From now on,” he announced, “I can give you only a penny for doing this.” The kids looked at each other in disbelief. “A penny?” they repeated scornfully. “Forget it!” And they never came back again.

A clever old man for sure.

It is often assumed that adding an incentive, in this case a monetary one, will increase a person’s motivation to do something. However, that is not what is happening here.

The old man started rewarding the kids for something they had been doing voluntarily and somehow found some joy in doing. As soon as money was introduced, the children viewed the task as something they did to get paid. Once the money was taken away, they lost interest.

And that was the old man’s goal, to take away their intrinsic motivation.

Kohn suggests this is what many parents and teachers are doing, killing off the interest of kids from doing something they like by introducing rewards into the process.

It’s a good lesson, and one that came just in time.

Since I am trying to reach 1,000 followers, I think I’ve come up with a plan that will help get me there sooner.

I am going to find 100 people who currently do not read my blog, and pay them $10 a day NOT to read my blog. After a week, I’ll cut it to $5, then a week later to $1, and then a few days later, there will be no payment at all. At this point, they will have lost interest in NOT following my blog, and so they will begin to follow. Before you know it, I will be over 1,000 followers.

Think of all the places this approach could work:

  • kids not cleaning their room? start off by paying them to NOT clean their room, and then slowly reduce the payment to $0. There will be pent-up demand to clean their rooms.
  • kids not doing homework? pay them NOT to do it – we know where this is leading…
  • somebody won’t go on a date with you? Pay them NOT to go on a date with you. Keep doing so for a few weeks, and then stop paying the person. Before you know it, the person will be begging you to go on a date with them.

The possibilities are endless.

There is, of course, the chance I completely misread the message Alfie Kohn is trying to make.

I’ll let you know how my plan for getting followers works out…

*image from verywell mind

97 thoughts on “Extrinsic Rewards Reduce Intrinsic Motivation: Using Psychology to Pick Up More Followers

  1. It sounds like a good plan to get followers, to me. But before you start it, first let me unfollow you. Then you can start paying me not to follow you.

    I think I’m going to pay my neighbor $20 to turn his music up, and then start reducing his payment, and see how well that works.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Great idea, Tippy!!! I, too, shall ‘unfollow’ so that I can re-follow and reap the rewards! Frankly, I could use the money! Good luck with your neighbor, by the way … let us know how it works out! Perhaps I can pay my neighbor to let her dogs out to bark their fool heads off while I’m working!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Now, Jim … was that the rule before you eavesdropped and overheard Tippy and I discussing this, or did you implement this rule after the fact? I’m considering phoning my lawyer about the statute here …

        Liked by 2 people

      1. You have a sound business strategy, which is no surprise from a professor of business at such an erudite university. Somehow I get the sense I’m being snookered.

        Before I try my plan out on my neighbor, I’ll first have to depart with a few dollars in my wallet. This will require some time for me to build the courage.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. There is much food for thought here, Jim. Like most parents, I used what I thought of as “positive reinforcement” when my children were young, and never thought that I was making a mistake, but I see the logic here. Loved the story of the old man! As for your idea … well, I think Tippy may have started something here that could possibly throw a wrench into your idea, but … heck, go for it! Let me know how it works out!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Haha, it may not work in every case, Jim, but that old man was pretty clever. Okay, you forced me to check my stats and I have 3524 followers on Robbie’s Inspiration. How cool is that! I am not going to check stats on posts though because I like the freedom of blogging as I please.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I like that story with the older man. Psychology is a wonderful tool. I think we’ve discussed this subject before. I agree that rewarding kids anytime they do anything is asking for trouble. The result is they’ll get lazier and lazier. On the other hand, not all people respond to intrinsic rewards. In a perfect world, they would, but human nature is all over the map. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an occasional extrinsic reward. Let’s say your boss takes the time to write a personal letter thanking you for your contributions to the company. I suppose some people wouldn’t call this a “reward,” but my belief is an occasional gesture such as that carries a lot of weight.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. as a teacher, I know this to be true and never use this method. I love the story of the old man and good luck to you jim. does it count if I stop following and then begin anew after receiving my reward from you? asking for a friend.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. or, give her stickers when does not go, and then slowly stop giving her stickers when she does not go. then she will be excited to go,and you won’t have to use stickers… 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Jim, I’m wondering if you have an incentive program worked out for current subscribers to BB? If you paid us to go away and not read or follow your blog, would any of us leave, and if so, for how long? Also, please prepare an e-transfer in the amount of $1,600 to Kuched. I’m here to help get the Cool Hundo required for Borden’s Blather to join the 1K Club. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. there is a plan for current subscribers who are thinking about unfollowing so they can then get paid: “existing followers do not qualify, and if any leave, they have to pay to leave :)”

      keep your eyes out for that transfer – it’s in the cloud somewhere… 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I thought you were already paying me to read your blog! You always take the time to leave me a little something when I post. Seriously though, you couldn’t pay me not to read your stuff. I find your blog one of the most enjoyable of all that I follow. You will be at 1K in no time!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I wonder which will come first: your 1,000th follower or your kids cleaning their rooms? And how will you explain to your wife all those women pleading for a date with you? This could be interesting…😉

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Hi Jim,
    Kohn also advocates that eliminating grades in courses improves learning. Over my 40 years of teaching courses I found that traditional grading improves effort and learning relative to the students who took my courses on a pass-fail basis. I’m a firm believer that grading motivates learning.

    I repeat once again my example of the 60+ students in a political science course at Harvard who were expelled for cheating on homework. Their excuse was that, since they were assured of all getting an A grade in the course irrespective of their homework and examination performance, it wasn’t worth their effort try very hard in the course. They elected to put their maximum effort into courses where they were not assured of receiving an A grade.

    Most of the students cheated in the course where they were assured of receiving an A grade. But they forgot that Harvard takes its Honor Code rather seriously when students are caught cheating.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. the story about the Harvard students doesn’t see to make any sense. If they were getting an A regardless, why did they even bother doing the homework, let alone cheat on it? And if the grade is not dependent on homework, why was copying considered cheating?

      Also, I think Kohn and others point out that rewards might work for short-term learning/memorization, other forms of evaluation might be better for longer term retention and learning.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I wonder how Kohn views six and seven figure incentive bonuses many corporate execs are eligible for annually. I’ve always been amazed at how boards and shareholders have been convinced to pay them several times their salaries for doing things covered in their job descriptions, which a salary should compensate them for. The old man is a genius.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My guess is that those bonuses do a good job of focusing an executive’s attention on whatever he or she is being evaluated on, and they may start to lose sight of the big picture, or make decisions that enable them to hit the goal, but actually harm the company in the long run…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Haha..reverse Psychology always works I used to tell Lily that she wouldn’t like something and she would beg to try it …she now eats anything…although she does give me that knowing smile now when I try it…Some interesting comments, Jim…hope you soon reach your milestone…Have a great weekend 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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