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Punished by Rewards

The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
Narrated by: Alfie Kohn
Length: 13 hrs and 9 mins
5 out of 5 stars (25 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The basic strategy we use 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 we train the family pet.

Drawing on a wealth of psychological research, Alfie Kohn points the way to a more successful strategy based on working with people instead of doing things to them. "Do rewards motivate people?" asks Kohn. "Yes. They motivate people to get rewards." Seasoned with humor and familiar examples, Punished by Rewards presents an argument unsettling to hear but impossible to dismiss.

©1993 Alfie Kohn (P)2017 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"A clear, convincing demonstration of the shortcomings of pop-behaviorism, written with style, humor, and authority." ( Kirkus)

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Insightful, intriguing and fresh.

This is an academic book, with lots of research. If that’s not your thing, you may not enjoy it. However, I believe every person could benefit by reading this book as it contains insightful looks at parenting, teaching and managing.

The fact that it has an epilogue with updates is a bonus as well. Thank you Mr Kohn for this wonderful book.

Now, implementation is the hurdle!

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  • Michael
  • 19-05-2018

Punished by Rewards

Every now and then a paradigm shifting book comes along my way. It's that time again. I went into this book a bit sceptical, amused by the cover and its premise, and wondering how the author was going to convince me that 'praise' could be detrimental, and other ridiculous ideas that sound like they come from hippy liberals who are still traumatised by never winning a ribbon on school sports day. It's not what you think though. Kohn methodically and scientifically deconstructs behaviourism's punishments and rewards, and shows how they are counter-productive to the goals of those using them, and ultimately demotivating and detrimental to those 'upon' whom they are used. It’s not at all about making all people ‘the same’, or promoting mediocrity – it’s about focusing people on the long term, and on what really matters, and what actually works.

How could rewards be 'bad'? I've always felt the tension, but never known another way. "Kids, clean your room and you'll get a lollipop." It teaches them that cleaning their room is something they wouldn't want to do without a reward, it makes it an obstacle between them and the reward, and it makes them focus on the reward, not the important issue – why you want them to want to have a clean room. Remove "clean room" and insert it with any other task - maths homework, greeting elders, behaving in class, meeting a quota, reading a book, etc., - and switch the reward - A's, praise, raise, stickers, screen time, etc., - and it's the same formula. As he kept saying, "Do this and you'll get that" makes them focus on the 'that', not the 'this'.

The natural response here is, "Well, what's the alternative?" Unfortunately (but logically), the solution isn't a quick fix. It's much more involved and holistic. You don't just replace incentive systems with non-incentive systems, or something like that. You need a paradigm shift from focusing on extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation, which means more discussion, more understanding, more customisation and collaboration, less manipulation, threats and ultimatums. Kohn does give a lot of practical ideas, and many of them don’t require that the whole world change before you implement them – he suggests ways that you can do it ‘less bad’, rather than 100% perfectly, ie., how you can minimise the negative effects of extrinsic incentives while still working within the system. I appreciated that.

On the downside, I thought that Kohn occasionally ignored a few alternatives while trying to universalise an issue, or only took one possible negative interpretation of an action where the reality might be more complex, but these moments were few and I was able to see past them to his research and points and make my own conclusions. It was also difficult (from the audio version) to check his sources and see if he was being selective in the research he used to back his points, but I have enough life experiences of behaviourism to know exactly what he was talking about most of the time. I don’t really need a scientific study to tell me that incentivising my kids for their ‘good’ behaviour teaches them nothing about why they should be ‘good’, other than to get a ‘carrot’. You can’t ‘pay’ them to have a ‘good heart’.

This is a book that’s going to stay with me for a while, and will require some more learning and reflection and adjustment.

As for narration, Kohn was the best choice for narrating this, even though he sounds a bit like Wallace Shawn ("inconceivable!"). He knew exactly how to deliver his message, with the right warmth, harshness, deliberation and humour.

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  • Isaiah St John
  • 23-05-2018

Skeptical at first, I've been won over

I began this book skeptical of Kohn's thesis. I was going to listen with an open mind, but in a world full of people spending 40 hours or more a week chasing a paycheck, I anticipated to be presented with a half-baked theory that stretched thin evidence past limits of sober credulity sprinkled with powerful -- if not quite believable -- anecdotes. Instead, Kohn makes a compelling case, and if anything, the numerous research citations become tiring. If the reader perseveres, Kohn goes on to describe alternative approaches to parenting, teaching, and leadership. This isn't a page-turning beach read, but Kohn has successfully convinced me that some deeply held beliefs are misguided and pointed the path to a better way. And I'm already seeing some small successes in applying these lessons to my everyday life. I'm very glad I purchased this book.

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  • Alethea B.
  • 15-08-2019

Astonishingly good

I don’t think I’ve ever read a more shocking, thought-provoking, tremendously entertaining, deeply needed book that’s so much more than a book — it’s a force for the good. What a wake-up call for a way (a series of ways) to make the world a better place! Full of truth and compassion, this book left me shimmering with hope and excitement.

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  • Will Szal
  • 12-05-2019

Lowering Performance and Enhancing Hierarchy

Punishments and rewards are so ubiquitous they disappear from critical inquiry:
* Grades in academia
* Awards, such as the Nobel Prize
* Performance-based compensation
* Grants based on deliverables
* Fines and jail time in the criminal justice system
* Repercussions in parenting

In his 1993 book, Punished by Rewards, social scientist Alfie Kohn exhaustively reviews hundreds of scientific studies on behaviorism. Counter to the collective faith in "pop behaviorism," he concludes that
Punishments and rewards definitively decrease performance.

To elaborate a bit on some of the instances in which Kohn investigates this topic:
* Letting people set their own rewards doesn't change their maleffect
* Children raised with rewards have lower self-esteem and have less intrinsic motivation
* Praise is no better
* Performance-based rewards result in worse performance than volume-based rewards
* The only instance where rewards don't have a negative effect on performance is when they are eternal and for menial task devoid of creativity or fulfillment (in such instances, we may be better off discontinuing such working conditions to begin with)

To postulate a theory on the effect of rewards:

In the long run, rewards actually deter the behaviors they seek to incentivize.

Rewards compromise personal agency and contribute to feelings of being manipulated.

So why do they dominate our societal infrastructure? Why do families and organizations continue to turn a blind eye to the devastating evidence that punishments and rewards are worse than doing nothing?

Radical behaviorism has returned to infamy, heralded by Shoshana Zuboff's recent book on surveillance capitalism.

You may have been hearing lately about B. F. Skinner, the founder of this school of thought. Skinner believed in a machine-mentality of humans. Given our plastic psychologies, humans can respond to rewards and be turned into machines, but this is not an ethical course of action.

As Zuboff elucidates, Silicon Valley has become the poster child of pop behaviorism. Many founders have become disenchanted with the human-as-machine analogy.

If rewards don't enhance performance, how are they useful?

Rewards establish and reinforce hierarchies of power and control.

They elevate the rewarder and demote the rewarded.

A consideration for why this would be desirable is beyond the scope of this post.

From its inception, the cryptocurrency space has been pervaded by a behaviorist tone.
Section six in Nakamoto's whitepaper is entitled "Incentive," (which has a distinctly different implications than a word such as compensation).

The term "reward" appears a dozen times in the Ethereum whitepaper.

As I have explored before, the mainstream cryptocurrency community has a strong right-wing streak.

So it might come as no surprise to many that token designers might aspire to engineer motivation in the participants of their economies.

Given that the cryptocurrency space is still in its infancy and very much in an experimental phase not yet backed by definitive theory, what is at risk if we do not critically investigate our behaviorist bent?

Cryptocurrency's dependency on a reward-mentality risks perpetuating a machine paradigm that extinguishes the possibility for creative solutions and emergent outcomes.

Given the many existential threats currently faced by humanity, these are risk that we cannot afford. Conversely, what opportunity is there for the creation of new economies grounded in intrinsic motivation?

At my startup, Regen Network, we come from a living-systems paradigm that seeks to develop the will and ableness of stakeholders in our network towards an aim of planetary regeneration. Given that we operate in the spheres of both regenerative agriculture and cryptocurrency, how can we leverage their strengths while reconciling their sometimes-divergent ideologies?
* How do we create an economy where network participants are motivated by intrinsic will as opposed to extrinsic reward?
* In a global economy pervaded by scarcity and insufficiency, how do we shift the economics of agriculture to compensate regenerative behavior, capitalizing regenerative agriculture and funding the right livelihood of land stewards?
* How do we create a technology platform that enlivens human relationship with land (as opposed to further removing humans from a felt-sense of living systems)?

These are some of the questions we're currently grappling with. We hope that others will join us in discernment and architecting of a regenerative world.

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  • David Madden
  • 06-05-2019

Great for Parents

A powerful book that changed my view of parenting and leadership! I appreciate Alfie
Kohn’s courage and ideas.

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  • Nico Salas
  • 02-04-2019

Excellent information, vital message, slow read

I loved the message of this book and the logical arguments laid out by the author. However, it was not the easiest to get through. I almost completely stopped listening 2 or 3 times throughout the book because it felt so dry, even though I knew how revolutionary the message was. I recommend every read this, especially if you’re a worker, parent, employer, or teacher, but be prepared for a slow read at times.

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  • Ruslan Vasylev
  • 15-03-2019

Good book!

Good book. It felt a little too long and, perhaps, repetitive at times. Nevertheless, I'm glad that what needed to be said about the subject was said.

The overall approach feels right. Liberal where things concern peoples/children's choices, yet conservative in virtues.

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  • Daniel Simion
  • 17-05-2018

It’s a must

If you are a parent, teacher or manager, this audiobook should be your top priority.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 22-01-2018

i really liked the ideas the books suggested

i liked the overall idea of the book. i was really interested in particular ways of caring for people in ways that rises their intrinsic motivation and helping them in what they need.
I liked the scientific way of talking about behaviorism and control over people and how it affects the overall performance and feelings.

thanks for the book!

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  • Ryan
  • 20-02-2020

A Classic Critique of Behaviorism

Alfie Kohn did a wonderful job at citing research and describing what has gone wrong since Skinner’s research. While some of his narrative may roam into the terrain of ideological possession, most of his content is very sound.

There are times when he’ll fall into logical fallacies (straw man, usually) when examining critiques or responses to his ideas and the research he cites, but those are mostly forgivable. When asked what alternative he proposed to behaviorism, he could have said, “I don’t yet know!” Instead he chose to continue to point out how damaging and flawed behaviorism is and cite that whatever the alternative is it had to be better than behaviorism.

When looking at this, I thought that perhaps Kohn couldn’t find peer-reviewed literature research on alternatives to behaviorism because B. has gotten such a firm hold on society. I don’t actually know, and I haven’t checked. However, in studying psychology, education, and therapy the main research was on rapport, which isn’t easily measured or provable. Behaviorism, however is VERY amenable to our current research models.

He cites so much research about behaviorism at the beginning of the book that it’s be easy to appreciate that the research he’s summarizing doesn’t give alternatives! As a result, his book then becomes a critique without an alternative.

If you read this book and you end up exasperated by how little he gave you (he takes away quite a bit by criticizing the hold “pop behaviorism” has on society, and as an alternative merely suggests having a conversation and getting to learn *why* a person/child/employee is behaving xyz), I’d recommend two books. First, The Anatomy of Peace by The Arbinger Institute. It’s good at helping people in positions of influence or authority learn to use their influence and authority so they don’t invite rebellion, but instead invite willing loyalty. And for those of you wanting to learn about some of the causes of *why* people act the way they do (and how to help them change) I’d recommend a dating/marriage book that has universal content that is good for every person who relates to any other human, How To Avoid Falling In Love With A Jerk, by John van Epps Ph.D.

When I was armed with Punished by Reward, and those other two books, all my puzzle pieces started fitting together. Aside from physical health related behavior issues, it’s a pretty killer dynamic that I recommend wholeheartedly.

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  • Natalia A
  • 09-11-2017

A must read for anyone hoping to use respectful upbringing, teaching and/or management

I read the book 7 years ago. I couldn’t agree with and support this approach any more. Rewards & punishments annihilate any chance of humans feeling motivated or moved to do things. A must read.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 07-09-2019

Amazing! Essential reading especially for teachers.

Great that its read by the author as it includes all his passion. It’s is long though and could be edited a bit more.

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  • J. ELARIO
  • 28-04-2019

3 hours left and still no alternative to rewards

one person can tolerate hearing the same argument only so many times. no more please!

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 28-03-2019

Changed My Perspective!

What a fascinating viewpoint on rewards. I was recommended this book and it did not disappoint. It completely changed my vision of childcare and I’ve been eagerly putting his guidance into practice- with exciting results. You suddenly become so aware of the bad habits both parents and employers own!

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  • kamal
  • 21-08-2018

Balanced, clear and practical

I will certainly use the introspection tools mentioned at the end of each chapter in my day to day life.

The book itself conveys a nice balanced ethic, individuals are given the highest respect through treating them as a reason in themselves, and therefore reasoning with them.

It is almost an incidental fact that the first half of the book is dedicated to pointing to the huge amount of evidence from both laboratory studies and real-world interventions that show the harms done by rewards; specifically framed in such a way as to be conditional. The manifold harms stem from reducing intrinsic motivation, shifting the locus of control away from the praised person, reducing the passive person's attention to a very narrow single goal orientated view and even worse the reward-giver stands to gain more by yielding unbalanced power over the praised than the praised is likely to gain from receiving the praise.

I think this book is a must-read for anybody wanting to encourage and foster mutually respectful and productive relationships with persons of any age (older or younger).

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  • Penny Willis
  • 30-07-2018

As relevant today (2018) as it was then (1993).

How sad that the evidence against reward and punishment continues to fall upon deaf ears in western society. Change can be such a slow process. Drip, drip, drip though is better than nothing.
Alfie John is a greater narrator. Entertaining, amusing and wise.

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  • Pollyanna G
  • 13-05-2018

Eye-opening and insightful evidence-based book

This is one of those books that confirms a suspicion that you can't quite articulate. I read this after reading one of Alfie Kohn's other books 'Unconditional Parenting', which I absolutely love. When it comes to parenting advice, I have learned to only trust the writings of those authors whose works are backed up by actual research, rather than solely opinion based. Alfie Kohn's books are all meticulously researched and many research studies are cited in the book. You just can't ignore the evidence that punishments and rewards are detrimental to intrinsic motivation, and have no place in the classroom, or home. I am fairly terrified at the prospect of sending my child, who has such a beautiful and natural love of learning, to school, for fear that stupid incentive programmes will gradually destroy this natural urge to learn. I am seriously considering home education as a result of reading Alfie Kohn's books among many others that address issues around how our education systems are formulated.

Having said that it's strongly evidence-based, the book is not at all dry. Alfie Kohn has an excellent sense of humour which really comes across and makes this an immensely readable book, anyone who's seen his youtube videos will know this. It's fantastic that the author himself narrates the book as his dryness really comes across.

Like 'Unconditional Parenting', I feel this book is a must-read for all parents, teachers and those with an interest in raising children, although its principles are also applied to businesses and organisations. It might be an uncomfortable read for those who have relied on punishments and rewards but it's never too late to change.

I was so happy to find this as an audiobook as I have very little time for 'actual reading' but can listen to audiobooks while working.

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  • Jen
  • 04-10-2017

Life-changing

If you have never really questioned the issue or rewards and punishments, Alfie Kohn presents a fresh look at the whole matter that might well change your entire outlook on life. He is likeable to listen to and presents a lot of evidence in a digestible way. I agree with some that it felt a little lengthy at times but I will certainly re-listen to particular chapters. I like that he doesn't pressurise an 'all or nothing' approach and urges the individual to examine their own reasons for thinking or behaving in certain ways. I am a convert and will be listening to more Alfie Kohn books.