Rewarding a Child’s Good Behavior Can Lead to… Bad Behavior

SharingAs every parent knows, positive reinforcement creates more of a good behavior. A dollar for cleaning your room, a milkshake for getting good grades, extra screen time for being nice to a sibling — these rewards are a way to shape how your kids act and even feel.

Unfortunately, a study in the journal Child Development also shows that our intuition about positive reinforcement can be exactly wrong. In this study, rewarding a child’s sharing resulted in the child choosing to share less.

The test was done with 48 3-year-olds, who chose how many marbles to share with a puppet. During a game, it seemed as if a child happened to get three marbles while the puppet got only one. Offering hope for humanity, half of the children noticed the disparity and gave the puppet a marble without further prompting. If not, the puppet said, “I only got one marble” and then “I want to have as many marbles as you” and then, if needed, “Will you give me one?”

Now is when the experiment gets interesting. When a child did finally cough up a marble, some simply moved on without result, some were praised (“Oh thank you for sharing a marble with me! That was really nice.”). And some were rewarded with a balloon, bracelet or animal eraser.

Time passed. And then the kids were tested again – over three related but different games, can you guess which kids chose to share? Here’s what happened: “Children continued to equalize an unfair outcome after having experienced praise or a neutral response from the favored play partner but shared less often after they had received material rewards,” the paper writes.

They did it again, replacing the sympathetic puppet with an impartial experimenter. Even without the empathy created by collaborating with a cute little monster puppet, kids who had been rewarded for their sharing went on to share less. In fact, they went on to share less even than kids who had received no praise. It wasn’t that praise was great and an extrinsic reward was a little less good – it was that rewarding a child’s sharing actually did harm, leading to less sharing than if the researchers offered nothing at all.

There are a couple takeaways. First, as any parent knows but to the researchers’ apparent surprise, the study provides more evidence that the idea of fairness exists even in very young children (and other experiments show that it’s only later that we learn to temper this instinct to share at our own expense…). Second, and probably more controversially, they say that the work, “provides strong evidence for a common underlying intrinsic motivation of fairness.”

In this study, the fairness of a child that learned to expect a reward was always tied to the expectation of the reward. When the reward was absent, so was fairness. Even more, it went beyond kids coming to expect a kind of pay-for-play in this marble game. “Receiving a reward initially in the collaborative sharing context diminished children’s motivation to share in new situations in which they had never been reinforced before,” the paper writes.

In other words, rewarding fairness made kids overall less fair on future tests. Want to know what to do about it? The researchers are pretty clear: “Parents and educators should be encouraged to rely on intrinsic motivation and rein- force feelings of autonomy and competence as much as possible rather than to provide superfluous material incentives, which can even have detrimental effects.”

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One Response to Rewarding a Child’s Good Behavior Can Lead to… Bad Behavior

  1. Ed Vannoy says:

    In the language of behavior analysis the material reward functioned as a positive punisher, not reinforcement. Positive means added after a behavior occurs, not nice or pleasant. Punish means that a behavior diminishes in frequency or intensity after a consequence. The study is interesting in that it shows that our intuitions about how to provide reinforcement or punishment are not always correct.

    I remember an anecdote that shows this. A reform school had a problem, I think it was students wreaking the bathroom or something. They tried to punish the misbehaving students by putting them on bread and water. This had the apparently paradoxical effect of increasing the bad behavior. A behavioral analyst was brought in. He suggested that the bread and water be replaced with baby food. The problem behavior ceased. Bread and water was positive reinforcement. Baby food was a positive punishment.

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