Bribery + Vegetables = Success

Does bribing kids work? The debate rages on, although Levitt has done it effectively on at least one occasion. A new study (summarized by the BPS Research Digest) suggests that bribery can work wonders, at least when it comes to vegetables. Over a two-week period, a team of researchers (Lucy J. Cooke, Lucy C. Chambers, Elizabeth V. Añez, Helen A. Croker, David Boniface, Martin R. Yeomans and Jane Wardle) rewarded kids stickers or verbal praise for eating vegetables they weren’t very fond of. “After the two-week period, all the intervention children showed equal increases in their liking of their target vegetable compared with the control children,” explains the BPS Digest. “However, when given the chance to eat as much of it as they wanted (knowing there was no chance of reward), the kids who had previously earned stickers chose to eat more than the kids who’d just been repeatedly exposed to the vegetable without reward.” Importantly, the results were long-lasting: “At one- and three-month follow-up, the intervention children’s increased liking of their target vegetable was sustained regardless of the specific condition they’d been in. However, in terms of increased consumption (when given the opportunity to eat their target vegetable, knowing no reward would be forthcoming), only the sticker and verbal praise children showed sustained increases.” [%comments]

Ian Kemmish

Am I the only one distrustful of the fact that all of the numbers associated with the experiment are published, _exceot_ the number of children whose behaviour was changed?

Eileen M Wyatt

There are people who *don't* praise their kids for showing desired behaviors?

David Leppik

Stickers and praise aren't bribery because they aren't monetary. There's a big difference. For one thing, little kids need to learn the value of money, whereas praise is valued within weeks of birth, and stickers are of interest by the time they stop being a choking hazard. For another thing, praise costs nothing more than the adult's attention.

In general, though, monetary and non-monetary rewards are not equivalent. In particular, a monetary reward can be a major turn-off when a financial transaction is not socially acceptable. (Romantic relationships, for example.) Praise is a far more universal currency.

Michelle Barnes

I think that what they should refer to it as is "reinforcement." Bribery is when the reward is given BEFORE the behavior even occurs, and reinforcement is when the reward is given AFTER the behavior occurs. In particular, this is actually positive reinforcement because they are trying to get the behavior to INCREASE and the reward is POSITIVE. :)


"There are people who *don't* praise their kids for showing desired behaviors?"

Yes, there are those who don't, or at least not much, because they ask why should they praise their kid for doing what they are supposed to do? They're supposed to do it and that's it.


@Eileen #2: Yes. For some kids, the best they can hope for is to be ignored rather than scolded or yelled at or worse.


Stickers are a bribe. Praise is not a bribe. Both are positive reinforcement.

As bribes go, stickers are very low cost, and praise is free. So why not? Either is also much better (physically and psychologically) than bribing children to eat their vegetables with dessert.

I'd note that they picked the children's fourth choice vegetable out of six, not their sixth (last) choice. I think this is significant. I remember as a child there were vegetables whose taste made me nauseated; no amount of praise would have voluntarily made me eat more of them.

Eric M. Jones

But wait a minute, what about our "Jewish" mothers who denigrate (with love) their kids in becoming overachievers. Example:

Child: "Hey Mom, I just got an A in algebra!"
Mom: "Your brother got an A+....Aren't you as smart as your brother?"

Eric Swisher

Maybe the key is that bribery helps overcome initial resistance to something that isn't really unpleasant. Uncertainty (say, about flavor) is unpleasant, so easy for a kid to say "No thanks". But bribery will motivate us to push our boundaries, perhaps to discover that our concerns were baseless (Hey Broccholli is Good!)
It would be interesting to try this experiment with adults, on a variety of subjects.

Ken Mac

With regard to comments 2 and 5. Yes, there are parents that do not praise their children for anything. As for the "best" being to be ignored; children prefer being yelled at to being ignored. The only thing worse than being ignored is to be physically beat.

Melinda Oslie

Bribery as a tool can be very useful for a parent, as my following anecdote illustrates: When my 4 year old daughter started pre-kindergarten, the public school nurse was not happy with her vaccine records, and insisted a booster for chicken pox be redone or she would kick my little gal out of class. As I was working and desperately need the extra income I caved in spite of the fact my daughter had already had a mild chicken pox case plus the vaccine. My main concern was that it was rampant in her classroom and she was getting over a little cold. Within hours of the vaccine she developed horrible blisters in her mouth, covering her tongue and palate, cheeks and gums. She refused to eat, and lost 5 pounds in 3 days. When you only weigh 40 lbs to begin with, that's an alarming amount to shed. I racked my brains to find something that would not hurt her mouth to eat and started offering her soft boiled eggs. Eggs! She hated eggs, so I gave her a "magic ring", a beautiful heavy gold ring with an opal, three diamonds and a ruby that my mother had left me. Told her the magic was in the stones, opal for her grandmother, ruby for me and diamonds for her and her namesake great grandmother. She would put on the ring and instantly be able to carefully eat the soft, neutral tasting egg, marveling to me about how the ring "really worked!" I said "Of course! Your tuning into the power of your female ancestors". She recovered in due time, gained back the weight quickly. and the magic ring would come out again, occasionally, when there was something she just had to swallow, like an antibiotic or cough syrup. "Mama, I think I need the magic ring for this." she would tell me. So don't pooh-pooh the power of suggestion with your children. She grew up and never ever thought this was a betrayal of her trust, just an amusing tool in the tool bag of her mama. By the way, I never used it to coerce good behavior, knowing the difference between fear plus a strong gag reflex and sheer orneryness.



@David Leppik "Stickers are not bribery because they are not monetary"

Only cash counts as a bribe? You must either be joking or a US Senator.


Negative reinforcement can also work. One morning I made peanut butter and bacon sandwiches for my two sons, six and eight. Neither had eaten this before and insisted on something else. I told them if they took one bite of the sandwiches and still didn't like them, I would fix them something else. Otherwise they would go to school hungry. There was no recourse since my wife was in the hospital. They bit, they liked, they ate their entire sandwiches.

Moorsalin Munshi

Food is food, perhaps if the vegetables were presented in a palatable way children would be more willing to eat them.
Boiled vegetables aren't very appealing unless they're cooked with meat or cheese. Then again, grilled Brussels sprouts are pretty nice, as well as stir fry spinach, bok choy, cauliflower and broccoli.

Sharon H.

My 3 kids always ate a wide variety of vegetables; the specifics changed over time as their palate changed but they always ate them. And the main dish, and other sides. My only rule? They had to eat 1 BITE of each thing I made that night. If they didn't like it, no biggee. They could eat more of the others things they liked better on the dinner menu. I think parents attach to much importance to food choices, giving the kids a perfect opportunity to control a situation.


I agree with Sharon - parents these days give kids too many choices when it comes to their food. I have an almost-5-year old and at dinner time, if I give him something he's never had before, he has to take at least one bite. If he doesn't like it after giving it an honest try, then I will get him something else or he can eat more of whatever else is on the table. If I give him something that I know he's had before and likes, then that's his meal and that's the end of it. I'll tell him that if he doesn't want to eat what's being served then that's fine but there's no other food coming his way until the next mealtime (might be dinner that night, or breakfast the next morning, etc). He might sulk about it for 5 or 10 minutes but he's a growing boy and he always eats at least a little something.

As for the lasting effects of the bribes, I'm not surprised - there have been many studies that have shown that kids sometimes need to be exposed to a food upwards of 10-15 times before liking it. So once they've gotten over that hump by being bribed with stickers 15 times, they're used to the taste of broccoli or whatever and will then eat it without too much of a fuss.


Kevin Park

Positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement or no reinforcment at all. It's how you teach a dog new tricks, a cat to poop in the litterbox, and now, teach kids to eat their vegetables.