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.


Chris Markl

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.

Rodolfo Araujo

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
www.rodolfoaraujo.com.br

TK

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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivation_crowding_theory).

Too often, I see research indicating that non-financial incentives work much better than financial incentives.
http://positivesharing.com/2010/04/when-even-forbes-magazine-get-it/

Ghost

Because it's called laziness in parenting.

Jay

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.

Sean Samis

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.

Angie

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.

Eric M. Jones

I just finished re-reading Richard Feynman's monograph (actually a Caltech commencement speech) entitled "Cargo Cult Science" in which he lambastes to pseudoscience known as education.

There are a lot of theories on how to educate kids, but nobody has ever figured out what works and what doesn't.

Now don't you find that odd? That's why I vote to bulldoze the whole game and start again.

Brett

@Chris

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.

Stacy B

I love it! She is going to REMEMBER that $100.

OJ

I think Chris Markl is right on the button - it may work (if designed properly) but it encourages the wrong type of development where the value of everything is only determined with reference to money. (or have i accidentally defined economics there...?)

Hannah H

My parents provided me with a financial incentive to do well in school. They did it two different ways...
1) Grades at the end of the semester would determine how much money I received.
2) Grades on tests during the semester would determine how much money I received.
The second option was more effective for me because there was an immediate reward for my studying, whereas in the first option, it is difficult to keep focused the entire semester on the financial reward. I can see that that would be the same for many other people.

J. Guyton

What about other incentives that wouldn't cost the school anything?

Allowing kids who read a certain amount of books to eat lunch outside or have longer recess would be free of cost. Providing these incentives on a random schedule may also increase the amount of kids reading. For example, have reading quizzes scattered throughout the semester and if students achieve a high score they are rewarded.

Some simple operant conditioning may have significant outcomes.

WholeMealOfFood

There are several potential problems with paying children per book read.

1) Children could learn to game the system. Just becuase they turn the pages in the book doesn't necessarily mean they will comprehend it. That's why paying for inputs is dangerous. Even if such a program poduces good results in a small scale, or short time period doesn't mean that it will scale well as policy.

2) It's possible that if you start paying kids to read books that you will take away whatever intrinsic desire they had to do so. In other words, if kids get used to being paid to read, then one they are no longer paid to do so, maybe they then read less than they otherwise would. The goal shouldn't be to boost some test scores at an early age. The goal should be more along the lines of producing intelligent, responsible, and productive adults.

Mike

Alfie Kohn explores this in "Punished by Rewards."

The accepted use of incentives may achieve a short term goal, however in study after study the longer term effects are either escalating incentives to achieve similar results or de-motivation once the incentives have been withdrawn.

There is also the confusion of a social transaction with a monetary one - Going to school to earn not learn.

Daniel

You'd better study how the kids change their reading habits (or other habits) after the reward is removed. A fundamental result from social psychology is that providing external motivation (incentives) can, over time, reduce intrinsic motivation. If you pay me to do something I would do anyway, I will do less of it once you stop paying me. Strong incentives might increase reading/turning in homework/etc, and generally make the kids smarter, but there could also be significant negative consequences.

Rich Wilson

They say managing X is like herding cats. The reply is that herding cats is easy, just give them mice to hunt.

My 3 year old gets bored with all the games in his soccer class. But when I got in the net and actually made an attempt to keep him from scoring, he loved it. The joy of getting the ball past me on 1 out of 3 or 4 attempts was MUCH greater than getting the ball past me on every attempt as I faked trying to stop it.

Sean Samis

@Chris;

What you say is correct, but off-topic. If the goal is to incentivize children to study subjects they will someday need, but for which they can see no immediate benefit, monetary incentives are appropriate. Teaching children to act for a greater good is a different topic; an important topic, and needs a different pedagogy. It is possible to use monetary incentives where appropriate and other incentives where they are appropriate; children can handle that.

@OJ

Financial incentives will not teach children to value everything in term of money UNLESS it is the only incentive we teach them.

Meagan B. Call

Personally I think rewarding your child with $100 for a minigolf victory is a huge parenting mistake. I mean, now the next time she wins a game, she'll expect $200. Before you know it, your daughter will refuse to win at anything without financial gains. When we hear about a big NCAA controversy 10 years from now, "19 year old athlete throws mini-golf tournament, school under investigation" well, we'll know who's really to blame.

Greg

I have read many of the comments on why we should not pay students. Well, if parents would just make sure their kid knew how to read and do math we would not be having this discussion at all. But many, not all, parents are lazy and think it is solely up to the schools to teach their kids.

Just teach your kid how to read.

Here is what we do. I have a bright 3rd grader. She does not get money for grades. We have told her she is to perform to the best of her ability and nothing less. She will get punished or at least a strong talking to if she doesn't. My wife and I know her ability is straight As at this point, so that is what is expected and nothing less.

See I was a bright kid as well and made straight As. I never got incentives, but there was disincentives as well. See once in high school as long as I made As then my parents could not say anything to me and they did not. There were never squabbles about homework or studying. I got freedom for good grades.

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