Bribing Kids

The cover story of this week’s TIME magazine reports on recent attempts to use financial incentives to motivate students in public schools to achieve. Much of the article is based on the research of my good friend Roland Fryer, a professor at Harvard. My friend and colleague John List also contributes a choice quote. The results from using incentives are mixed. In some cases, incentives have been very cost effective: paying elementary school children in Dallas $2 for each book they read leads to substantial test score gains. On the other hand, a number of other programs aimed at older kids have been less effective. A lot of things change across the various experiments, but one hypothesis Roland puts forth in his academic paper is that better results will be obtained when focusing on inputs that the student can directly control (e.g. turning in homework, showing up for school, wearing a uniform), instead of outcomes (test scores, grades, etc.).

It is amusing to an economist to see how controversial it is to offer financial incentives to children in public schools. We offer financial incentives to just about everyone else in society in all sorts of settings, whether it is work, sports, encouraging people to recycle cans and bottles by paying a nickel each, etc. My parents used financial incentives with me as a kid, and I use them with my children. They worked on me, and they seem to be working as a parent. For instance, a few months back I told my four kids that if any of them could beat me in a ten-hole putting contest, I’d give them $100. I’m both proud and embarrassed to say that my nine-year-old?daughter Amanda is $100 richer today, having just beaten me for the first time.

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  1. Rodolfo Araujo says:

    The study may have shown the effectiveness of bribing kids, but it should be followed by another one measuring the effects of stop bribing the kids. Would they stop reading? I guess so.

    I also guess the kids would start making some demands, like “this book is thicker than the last one, so I should get $3 instead of $2″.

    On his latest book, Daniel Pink points out that when you offer a reward for a task to be done, you are implicitly stating that the task is undesirable – and some cash is needed to make it acceptable. Furthermore, he explains that it changes pleasure into work (the Sawyer effect).

    Best regards from a brazilian fan,

    Rodolfo Araujo

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  2. Chris Markl says:

    It seems that yes we are all self interested, yes we all respond to incentives, but at the end of the day many of what creates a coherent society is engaging in an action because it is correct and not because it is in my best interest. Voting, helping a stranded motorist, donating money, volunteering time, spending time with family, are examples of actions that we can put rational spins on to explain but largely happen not because we are incentivized.

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  3. TK says:

    If I introduced financial incentives into new areas such as school settings, I would fear crowding out non-financial incentives such as social norms, parental encouragement and support (

    Too often, I see research indicating that non-financial incentives work much better than financial incentives.

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  4. Ghost says:

    Because it’s called laziness in parenting.

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  5. Jay says:

    Financial incentives for public school students? I can’t speak for all states, but here in Indiana union contracts don’t even allow performance-based incentives for public school teachers.

    Seems like that would be the first logical step.

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  6. Sean Samis says:

    We pay our child for A’s an B’s on a sliding scale. I know this is paying for an outcome, but we also help him as much as he wants with homework.

    He’s pulling solid A’s and B’s; enough to buy his own XBox and a boat-load of games; which he can only play if he maintains a minimum 3.5. He’s done just that.

    Properly done, it can work. And someday when he has a job; guess what? They’ll be paying him for performance.

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  7. Angie says:

    My parents paid for grades and it worked extremely well. As a child/teenager, I could not adequately the measure the future value of getting very good grades, but my parents could. They incentized me with something I could easily measure – cash. I don’t think it is lazy parenting. I think it is actually very smart. A child can’t understand that these tasks (homework, studying) have real long term consequences on their life and ability to earn in the future. I never asked for more money. The terms and conditions were clear. I am no longer motivated primarily by money and engage in all sorts of activities that are not directly related to a monetary reward. It actually set up a much better work ethic than the “everybody wins” thinking of today. You put in the work – you get the reward. If you don’t – you don’t.

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  8. Brett says:


    I disagree with your statement that we do certain things irrationally. In fact when we vote, help a stranded motorist, or anything else that doesn’t have a direct, tangible benefit to us, we still have the carrot of feeling good about ourselves and the stick of guilt for ignoring someone in need hanging over our heads.

    I certainly think it’s safe to say that we do practically everything in our lives for some kind of incentive. I also agree with TK’s comment that non-financial incentives can be more powerful than financial incentives. And I like Rodolfo’s point that adding a financial incentive makes the task seem less desirable.

    I don’t oppose paying kids for good school behaviors because I don’t want to incentivize them, instead I oppose it because I’d prefer to use other incentives.

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