Brain Trust

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A New Kind of Reward Increases Intrinsic Motivation

Incentives hurt motivation; here's how to help a child find persistence.

Even my wife, a psychologist, falls prey to the seductive idea that a $5 trip to Target after a violin lesson will eventually result in our son associating violin practice with good things. The story goes that eventually the reward can be removed and the association of violin practice with “good” will remain. Of course, it's not true. The fact is, incentivizing a child’s behavior reduces intrinsic motivation (also HERE). This is even true to the point that offering incentives for an activity that a child likes detracts from his or her enjoyment and makes the child less likely to continue the activity in the future.

I think it would help my acceptance of the futility of incentivizing if I had some sort of alternative strategy. Yes, I've taken my son to concerts and yes he thinks classical music is cool. And yes, I told him that an ancient discipline of Kung Fu uses the bow of an Erhu as a deadly weapon. But beyond these parental sleights of hand, how can I create persistence?

A hint comes from THIS article published in the March/April issue of the journal Child Development. Specifically, the authors from Northwestern University ask how they can “motivate children’s sustained engagement in an otherwise boring task.” You know, like violin or homework or reading or any task that doesn’t include Candy Crush or Vine videos.

In this case, the boring task was placing 25 golf tees in a pegboard—once completed the 56, 3-5yos would get to see “a strange object or animal.” They were split into four groups: one group was promised a sticker (because, as we all know, preschoolers will do anything for a sticker), one group was promised nothing, and two groups were promised that along with the completed pegboard task they would get to learn something new about the strange object or animal.

There was a neat difference between these final two groups: one group learned “causally rich” information about the new thing, and the other group was given “causally weak” information. For example, children in the causally-rich condition were told that a make-believe creature with a strange tale, “has a tail that makes a rattling sound to scare other animals away” and kids in the causally-weak condition were told that, “this has a tail that bounces up and down on the ground as it walks.” In another example, the first group was told that a fanciful machine “shoots snow in the air” and the second group was told that it “is always filled with snow.” In the first group, the new information had meaning and purpose; in the second group, it was just a description.

Kids who were given nothing and kids who were given causally weak information both completed the pegboard task an average of 1.5 times. They were like children left alone in a room with a violin and a farting Labrador. Kids who were given stickers made it through an average of 3 pegboards. And kids who were given causally rich information made it through an astounding 4 pegboards. Read that again: interesting information beat stickers! Stickers, for gosh sake!

The easy explanation is that children like knowing neat information about how things work and that this causally rich information trumps a $5 trip to Target. (In fact, there is evidence this causally rich information may be physically pleasurable in kids’ brains.) Another explanation is that providing this information kept kids engaged and alert during an otherwise boring task.

No matter the mechanism, the result is this: “If expectations for extrinsic reward are generalized too broadly, insidious degradation of children’s global intrinsic motivation to learn can result. [But] because causally rich rewards inherently capitalize on children’s intrinsic desire to learn, we suggest that they may be less likely to have this detrimental effect on a child’s overall intrinsic motivation.”

I have armed myself with neat stories: how a violin works, what is the concertmaster’s role with the conductor, why Stradivarius violins are the bomb, and what is the difference between sound waves, light waves, ocean waves and earthquake waves. You know, all the causally rich information a 7yo boy wants to know. And I’m going to see if this newest sneaky parent trick can create persistence.

Garth Sundem is the author of the books Brain Trust, Brain Candy, and The Geeks' Guide to World Domination.

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