A lot of parents persuade children to study harder by rewarding them for exam success (Picture 1). They take the behavioural perspective that cash sums and expensive presents, including iPhones and cars, reinforce children to study hard. Children love these attractive rewards and, sure enough, they become more engrossed in studies a couple of weeks before an exam. High scores come out, reinforcing parents to continue “tempting” their children to work hard.
Picture 1. Parents' reward for A levels
However, parents are dismayed to find that these effects of persuasive tricks die out quickly once they pay less money or give a less attractive present. In addition, when the children get immune from the first several times of rewards, they are less motivated to work towards the goals. A study conducted by psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene pointed out that these parental persuasion were not lasting because rewards reduced intrinsic motivation.
55 preschool children aged 3-4 were selected as being interested in drawing based on specially-designed observation on students’ behaviours in drawing classes. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the three experimental conditions: i) expected reward condition where children were told they will get an extrinsic reward for engaging in the drawing activity for 6 minutes; ii) surprise reward condition where children weren’t told about the reward until finishing drawing; iii) no reward condition where children were neither told about rewards nor given rewards at the end of the experiment. After 7 to 14 days, the same observational procedure were conducted and free-choice behaviours of 51 children were collected. The following graph shows the percentage of time that subjects chose to play with the target activity.
Manipulating extrinsic rewards has an immediate effect on performance during experimental session. The quality of pictures drawn by expected reward children were significantly lower than other two groups as indicated by Figure 1. In addition, the detrimental effects of rewards were also observed in post-experimental class settings. We can see from Figure 2 that expected reward actually decreased the spontaneous drawing time and there is not much difference between no reward and surprise reward conditions.
Figure 1. Quality of pictures across 3 experimental conditions.
Figure 2. Percentage of drawing time across 3 experimental conditions.
These results are counter intuitive as they seem to disobey the classic behavioural rules, but why could they happen? According to the self-perception theory, people infer the reason for their own behaviours. If external reinforcements are salient and sufficient enough to explain them, the person attributes his behaviours to these circumstances. If they are unclear and insufficient to explain observed behaviours, the person might think behaviours come out of own dispositions, interests and desires.
To conclude, extrinsic rewards are common in education systems. From parental promises for high grades to academic scholarships for top students, parents and schools spare no effort to reinforce students to study harder. However, this practice is proved wrong both theoretically and experimentally. A better alternative might be leading children to focus on the charm of learning itself regardless of external circumstances. Only in this way will children become enduringly engrossed in learning.