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The Dangers of Focusing on Incentives, Rewards, and Consequences

Dr. J. Stuart Ablon

June 19, 2018

In my first post for Changeable on Psychology Today, I described some of the foundational thinking behind the Collaborative Problem Solving approach that my colleagues and I teach. I pointed out that when someone exhibits challenging behavior, we typically resort to conventional methods aimed at motivating better behavior from them, safe in the assumption that what is getting in their way is a lack of motivation. Motivational procedures can make the possible more possible, but they do not make the impossible possible. If challenging behavior is the result of a lack of skill, not will, as I suggested in my first blog, then relying on rewards and consequences might be barking up the wrong therapeutic tree! However, I sometimes find myself less concerned about the fact that motivational procedures don’t work with the most challenging behavior and more concerned about their side effects. Not only may motivational procedures not work if challenging behavior is caused by skills deficits, but I often see them make matters worse.

There are two primary dangers to focusing on external reinforcers like incentives or rewards and consequences:

1. Decreasing internal drive

A very clear finding from thousands of studies in this area is that the more you rely on extrinsic rewards to motivate behavior, the more you eat away at a person’s intrinsic drive to achieve those very goals. I have seen this time and time again in my work with some pretty tough children and adolescents, and Daniel Pink and others have described what this looks like in the workplace for us adults. The more we rely on a carrot and stick approach, the more dependent we get on constantly producing shiny new objects for people to be motivated by. In the worst-case scenario, over-reliance on extrinsic rewards actually encourages unethical behavior when people we are trying to motivate become focused solely on how to get the rewards as opposed to the goals we are trying to get them to achieve with those rewards in the first place. Much research has confirmed the negative correlation between extrinsic reinforcement and intrinsic motivation. The more we try to incentivize someone to do something, the less internal drive they will feel.

2. Damage to trust and self-esteem

A related side-effect of over-using external motivators is something my 101-year-old grandfather describes best. He often says: If you give a dog name, eventually they will answer to it. This is his way of describing how when we treat someone as though they are lazy, unmotivated or just not trying hard enough, that we should not be surprised when over time they start to look like, and talk like, and act like someone who is lazy, unmotivated and not trying hard enough. I like to think that none of us would want to consciously try to make someone else feel as if there are lazy, unmotivated, and simply not trying hard, but the cold reality is that whenever we use reinforcers to try to motivate better behavior we are indeed sending the not so subtle message that we think things would go better if they just tried harder. This is a dangerous message to send, and I have seen its impact firsthand in homes, schools, treatment facilities, and workplaces all around the world. When someone is constantly subjected to external reinforcers, they really have no choice but to come to one of two conclusions: (1) either the people trying to motivate me are right—I must not really be trying very hard; or (2) the people trying to motivate me are missing the boat and don’t understand me at all. I am not sure which conclusion is more damaging—to one’s self-esteem or trust in others.

As a parent, teacher, clinician, manager, or leader, I hope this blog gives you pause before you design your next sticker-chart, demerit system, or employee incentive program. In my next blog, I have some good news. There is a whole field devoted to how to foster that elusive thing called internal drive. So if you want to foster internal drive and steer clear of the side-effects of external reinforcers I described above, I will walk through what to focus on instead. Together, we will dive into the fascinating field of what is called self-determination theory to highlight what actually does foster sustained intrinsic drive. Stay tuned!


This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

E. L. Deci, R. Koestner, and R. M. Ryan “A Meta-analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 125 (1999): 627.

R. M. Ryan and E. L. Deci, “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 25 (2000)

D. H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books (2009)

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