Motivation & The Myth of Rewards


The BEST Stress
























Motivation and the Myth of Rewards


The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

Stars, Stickers and Other Myths of Motivation

The Million Dollar Question

The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

Arguably the greatest achievement of any person, young or old, rich or poor, is the achievement of sustained intrinsic motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is the motivation that comes from doing something we personally value in life, something that captures our attention, engages and energises us.  It is the motivation that comes from the pure joy of pursing a task, not from anyone else or from anything else.

In contrast the long term dissatisfaction associated with extrinsic motivation is well documented. Extrinsic motivation is the motivation that comes from the approval of others or the add-on rewards and payments we attain from doing something well. Extrinsic motivation can lead us to external riches but, if we make it a priority, it is also a guarantee of internal poverty. 

This is not to say that material wealth and the approval of others aren’t desirable.  They can certainly add to the quality of life.  Rather, if we choose to pursue our life in pursuit of external rewards above and beyond internal benefits, we will ultimately feel dissatisfied, no matter how well things look on paper.

Intrinsic motivation enables us to live our own lives well; extrinsic motivation is all about living life for someone else…

If we can learn to identify and develop intrinsic motivation we are more likely to pursue our goals with passion and wellbeing, more likely to achieve our goals with a sense of contentment and joy, more likely to live a life on fire…And what’s more, if we are intrinsically motivated we are actually more likely to be high achievers and reap the benefits of all those lesser external rewards, whatever they might be.

 back to top of page

Stars, Stickers and Other Myths of Motivation

The idea that extrinsic rewards encourage learning is so entrenched in Australian education, it has become an idea we rarely challenge. In reality, extrinsic rewards do little more than encourage short term compliance and a love of yet bigger rewards…

In 2013, we live in a world that positively embraces, and even expects, the use of rewards as a means of motivating adults and children in every arena of life.  Adults working in large corporations are given Christmas bonuses and performance related pay.  Shoppers are given free coffee with repeated visits to a favoured café and university students are given prizes for high performance.  Many educators rationalize the use of reward systems in schools as a logical mirroring of the adult word. “If it is a good idea to reward a hard working adult, surely it is a good idea to reward a hard working child?”

As a consequence we offer rewards to children all the way from pre-school to year 12. Young children are presented with stickers and gold stars for ‘being nice’ to each other. Older children are enticed with the possibility of merit certificates, lucky dip prizes and class movies.  Similarly, many schools now embrace token economies where children exchange awarded tokens for prizes ranging from pencils to pizza.  Further along the educational journey, multicoloured praise is replaced with the possibility of high grades and ‘awards’ for high academic achievement and a positive attitude.

Many parents are also advocates of the reward based approach to getting things done.  Parents reward children for doing well at home and at school.  We pay our children to load the dishwasher and offer them movies if they get their homework done. Many children are even rewarded for receiving rewards…

All of this occurs on the shoulders of an enormous body of research demonstrating that rewards actually reduce, rather than increase, long term motivation.  In fact, extrinsic rewards not only reduce sustainable intrinsic motivation, they reduce the quality of performance on all tasks, impact negatively on our relationships and lead to increased dissatisfaction with learning.  If this wasn’t enough of a claim, we also know, there is no evidence to the contrary. There is no support for the use of any extrinsic reward system as a means of improving task motivation or a desire to embrace any sort of life long learning. 

We may well ask: “What about the five year old who sits quietly when promised a smiley sticker? What about the fact that the class completed their project when given the possibility of a class party? What about the teenager who worked harder than ever in hope of getting an A?”

Certainly these outcomes occur, however, not because of motivation but because of compliance.  Rewards are most definitely desirable, by definition. Adults and children alike will do all manner of things to earn them. However, what this ultimately means is that rewards primarily increase compliance. The only motivation developed is the motivation for gaining rewards, not for the tasks themselves. 

Problems arise when we reward tasks that require intrinsic motivation for continued perseverance. For example, research has found that children who are rewarded for reading in year three are less motivated to read by year six.  Rewards result in a loss of interest in reading as a rewarding activity in itself.  This loss of intrinsic motivation results in children being less inclined to read for pleasure, less bothered about improving their reading repertoire and ultimately less literate than their peers.  They become less literate than both non-rewarded readers and children who do no reading outside of class time.

The findings are the same for all manner of activities whether academic, social or emotional.  When kids are rewarded for desirable behaviour, they may show more compliance to the teachers’ rules, but they end up with a less positive attitude to the teacher and to the other students in a classroom.  Classes that initially run on the basis of reward systems end up as less cohesive and less desirable places to be.

As both parent and educator, I have certainly resorted to my own share of bribery and performance pay offs. As such, I appreciate that even with sound research support; the idea of letting go of rewards can leave a very large hole in any classroom management policy. If it is not a great idea to ‘pay’ children to perform well, how do we get them to comply? How do we get them to have a go at new and challenging activities?

Encouraging positive behaviour and a love of learning is, at least initially, a more challenging process than the instant compliance obtained from a tempting reward. Still, it is a process that pays dividends in the long term. Here are three factors vital to increasing ongoing motivation and a love of life long learning

Relationships, relationships, relationships

Students of all ages are more likely to comply with class rules and have a go at challenging activities if they have a positive relationship with their teacher.  Build a positive relationship by managing your own stress effectively (teacher wellbeing is a foundation for effective education), and taking an active interest in the feelings and aspirations of your students.  Ask “how are you?” “How was your weekend?”

Self reflection

Ask students to reflect on the strengths in their own performance before you give them your feedback. Ask them what they have done well, what they have enjoyed about a task, what they have learnt.  In modern society we tend to get so caught up with extrinsic feedback, we lose sight of the importance of self reflection.

Discuss and describe

Avoid falling into the trap of offering the easiest reward of all – praise.  Rather than stating ‘well done’ in response to a desired behaviour, try simply describing what has occurred “I see you have tidied up the paints”.  Show your interest in a student’s progress by noticing something specific they have done. For example it is far more constructive to say “I see you have organized your report into a clear sequence of steps” rather than simply offering the reward of  “great work”…

Extrinsic reward systems are so entrenched in Australian education it may seem inconceivable not to use them in our classrooms. However, even if reward systems are here to stay, it is time that we approached them with a healthy dose of skepticism. We need to remind ourselves that compliance and motivation are not the same thing. 

  back to top of page

 The Million Dollar Question

The increasing interest given to youth wellbeing has encouraged teachers to incorporate wellbeing into their pedagogy and classroom activities.  It is vital that they do this with an understanding that wellbeing grows from healthy goal pursuit, not as a result of achievement.

Back in 1995, in the chilly north of England, I conducted a great deal of research investigating the relationships between the goals we set and our vulnerability to anxiety and depression.  I found that there are indeed some enduring relationships between what we want and how we feel. In line with last months mention of intrinsic motivation, my colleagues and I found that those vulnerable to depression tended to set extrinsic goals such as financial success and public recognition, above and beyond intrinsic goals such as skill development and improved personal relationships.  These findings were mirrored in adults and students alike. 

Once settled in Australia, I found similar results among Australian school children in 2002.  In a study of more than 30 Western Australian schools, I headed a research team that identified worrying rates of depression among children who wanted financial and material success as their top goals in life.  In contrast, the happiest groups of children I studied prioritized self-actualization (becoming the best person they could be) and having healthy family relationships.  Closer investigation of this link between goals and depression showed that the problem lies, not in wanting money or simply to own lots of ‘stuff’, but rather in wanting these things MORE than a desire to engage with life in a personally fulfilling way. 

As a follow on from this research, my team and I held in-depth interviews with young people in and around Perth.  Again and again vulnerable kids of all ages told us how much they wanted to end up in a job that earned lots of money, rather than one that was personally satisfying.  They told us how they viewed material wealth as a greater measure of success than acquired skills or nurtured talents. Large concrete shiny houses were considered far greater achievements than any form of abstract ‘inner peace’.

These same vulnerable kids also told us how much they admired anyone who had any measure of public recognition, (ie anyone who had managed to obtain a spot on reality TV!).  It seemed that Big Brother was viewed as the epitome of ‘having made it’ by a worrying number of pre-teens.  I call these young people ‘vulnerable’ as they were the ones who had the lowest levels of wellbeing, and the highest levels of depression.

So what is it about prioritizing extrinsic goals above intrinsic ones that is so depressing? I might consider it a bit sad to want to sit on the Big Brother couch, but is it really such a terrible thing for the youth of modern Australia to desire?  The answers appear to lie in the motivations controlling our goal choices.  If we prioritize extrinsic goals in life, we are more likely to believe that happiness and wellbeing are themselves goals to be achieved.  Simply put, we are more likely to believe that once we are rich or famous or living in our big house…we will be happy.  We believe that we need to achieve our goals to make us happy, and that happiness comes as a direct result of achievement. 

This means that we tend to put our happiness on hold during the pursuit of our goals.  We are willing to pursue a school subject we have no interest in, a career that does not suit us, even an unhealthy relationship, all in the faith that once we have achieved our goal (be it a high grade, a great income or a white wedding…) we will be happy.  I have called this phenomenon Conditional Goal Setting.  As may be expected, anyone who negates to attend to their daily wellbeing in this way, is likely to feel generally unhappy and unfulfilled with daily life.

If a Conditional Goal Setter is lucky enough to attain a longed for goal, eg to make a million or get in the finals of Master Chef…they may indeed experience elation and joy.  However, humans quickly habituate to success and so the Conditional Goal Setter must soon set another goal to pursue their evasive long term wellbeing.  They try and earn higher grades, more money or seek out the next level of fame.  Of course if they fail, then the picture is even bleaker as they suffer with the realization that they may now never ‘achieve’ their longed for happiness and wellbeing.

Young and old individuals who have consistently high levels of wellbeing do not pursue happiness or even the maintenance of happiness. Rather, they set intrinsic ongoing goals that create happiness as a byproduct of goal pursuit. For example, the student who studies medicine for the love of the subject will feel happy because they are engaged with what they are doing, not because they are likely to have a high income.  The singer who enters a reality show because they love singing will experience wellbeing even if they also are momentarily disappointed by losing the competition.

All of this research stresses the importance of engaging in the things we are DOING in life more than the things we want to ACHIEVE in life.  It also reminds us how important it is to prioritize our intrinsic goals above our extrinsic ones.  This is certainly not an anti-materialistic stance. I am convinced my life would be easier if I suddenly won a million dollars from the lotto or was given untold wealth…however, wanting these things more than I want to live my life in an engaging and personally fulfilling way would be a fragile and vulnerable way to live.

As educators it is important that we help our kids to regularly challenge their goals and the reasons they want they things they want. It is also vitally important that we keep a check on our own daily goals and on the intrinsic benefits they bring.


 back to top of page