Bribing Kids to Try on Tests

(Photo: vxla)

We use direct financial incentives to motivate so many different activities in life.  No one expects workers in a fast food restaurant to flip burgers for free.  No one expects teachers to show up and teach without getting paid.  But when it comes to kids in school, we think that the distant financial rewards they will earn years or decades later should be enough to motivate them, even though for most kids a month or two feels like an eternity.

To learn a little more about whether kids’ school effort responds to financial incentives, John List, Suzanne Neckermann, Sally Sadoff, and I carried out a series of field experiments we recently wrote up as a working paper (PDF here).  Sally Sadoff (whom you might remember from the Freakonomics movie as the woman who works tirelessly to help the students in Chicago Heights), talked about the research on Fox Business News.

Unlike most previous studies involving kids, schools, and payments, in this research we aren’t trying to get kids to study hard or learn more; we were going after something even more simple: just get the student to try hard on the test itself.  So we don’t tell the kids about the financial reward ahead of time — we just surprise them right before they sit down to take the test by offering them up to $20 for improvements.

To see any gains from the financial incentives, the students need to know that they will be paid right away. If instead we tell them we will pay them one month later, they don’t do any better than with no incentives at all.  This is bad news for those who argue that payoffs that come years or decades in the future are sufficient to motivate students.

The very best results come when we give the students the money before the test, and then we take the money back if they don’t meet the standards.  This result is consistent with what psychologists call “loss aversion.”

With young kids, it is a lot cheaper to bribe them with trinkets like trophies and whoopee cushions, but cash is the only thing that works for the older students.

It is remarkable how offended people get when you pay students for doing well – so many negative emails and comments. Roland Fryer endured the same onslaught as he has experimented with financial incentives in cities around the U.S.

Perhaps the critics are right and the reason I’m so messed up is that my parents paid me $25 for every A that I got in junior high and high school.  One thing is certain: since my only sources of income were those grade-related bribes and the money I could win off my friends playing poker, I tried a lot harder in high school than I would have without the cash incentives.  Many middle-class families pay kids for grades, so why is it so controversial for other people to pay them?

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  1. Steven Turnbull says:

    I pay my son an attendance allowance for attending school all week, if he misses one day through sickness he loses this ‘bonus’. I pay per grade for tests sat with a significant premium for an A but with smaller rewards for a B or C, but nothing below this. The amount depends on the importance of the test. So far it is working well. I’m certain it would have motivated me better when I was his age, he’s seven by the way.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 15
    • Nick says:

      When my mom tried to reward me for good grades some 25 years ago, it completely backfired. She would pay for As/Bs and deduct for Ds/Fs, without really knowing the volume of quizzes and tests that I would get through the course of a given week.

      I found it more cost-effective to hide the bad tests from her than to actually study.

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  2. Alex says:

    It may have worked for you sir, but when my parents tried that strategy, I found easier and way more fun ways to make that money. It failed to be an incentive, and rather, served as an opportunity cost – I had to work so much harder at school for not that much of return.

    Also check this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

    Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us…..

    Science is kinda tricky… showing that financial rewards only work on mechanical tasks on Uni students. Financial rewards actually tend to worsen performance when the task involved even a rudimentary use of cognitive skills.

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    • GLK says:

      Re: Drive. Dan Pink’s Wikipedia Story while entertaining is serious misapplication of motivational indicators. I love Wikipedia but the Wiki model attracts enthusiasts pooled from a worldwide audience. Wiki volunteers contribute at their leisure with just a small percentage contributing on a consistent basis. Wikipedia outgunned MS Encarta because pulling in volunteers, even momentarily, from a vast worldwide pool is very powerful due to the law of averages. But comparing the Wiki model to a limited pool of employees who expect to get paid, as Mr. Pink does for writing books and giving lectures, is folly. I’m quite sure most Wikipedia volunteers are supported by “real jobs” which enable them to spend time contributing. Wikipedia is for the vast majority of its contributors is quite simply the world’s largest, most successful hobby. Granted this hobby trumped Encarta but it did so by attracting huge numbers of contributors with a motivational mindset born from the spare time attained via being supported by money gained through real employment. Thus, in a very real way money was the motivator in Wikipedia’s success, the fact that it didn’t come from Wikipedia makes Dan Pink’s point pointless.

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      • Alex says:

        You are stuck on the wikipedia, the example used there, is also applicable to Linux, Apache, and all the Open Source software in this world, not just the wikipedia encyclopedia.

        Dan Pink also points out that the research about financial means as a motivator was commissioned by the Federal Reserve and replicated throughout many other research bodies, universities, professors, etc….

        So it’s not his talks, presentation, or writing skills that should be doing the convincing here, the data should.

        Also keep in mind that there is a huge section of his speech where he talks about Purpose vs Profit motive and that those are not mutually exclusive goals of a corporation. Not to be confused by the need for Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose – as a motivation for individual workers.

        What’s most important is not to miss the point about paying enough to remove the money as a point of contention. His speech doesn’t say money doesn’t work, and that you should be eating ramen.

        Money is a motivator, if you dont pay people enough, they won’t be motivated. The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to remove that issue off the table. After that it fails to work as a meaningful measure.

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      • James says:

        “…the example used there, is also applicable to Linux, Apache, and all the Open Source software in this world…”

        Yet many of the people who’ve worked on Linux and other OS software have had indirect profit motives. I, for instance, do far more paying work per hour using Linux and other OS tools than if I had to struggle with Windows or Mac systems.

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      • Alex says:

        James I bet when you started learning Linux it wasn’t with the thought – I bet I’m gonna make a killing working with this Open Source OS. Hindsight is of course 20/20 – but when you began learning Linux – there was zero guarantee you’d be successful and financially rewarded.

        Something tells me you might have just been interested in learning (Autonomy, Mastery…)

        The fact that you now make money from it, is not at all a bad thing. I bet very few Linux users start out with the thought, I gotta learn this package to make a ton of cash!

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      • James says:

        “…I bet when you started learning Linux it wasn’t with the thought – I bet I’m gonna make a killing working with this Open Source OS.”

        In my case you’d be wrong. I started working with (and making good money, if not exactly a killing, from that work) Unix long before there was a Linux. When PCs started to supplement and then displace mainframes & workstations for serious work, my alternatives were either to go with Linux, or pay lots of money for one of the commercial PC Unix OSes, like SCO. Or of course to find some other line of work.

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  3. Mike B says:

    People are offended because they are subconsciously aware of training people to only perform when certain rewards are present. Most of what people can do to improve themselves are motivated by abstract rewards, not direct rewards. If students are trained to only perform when offered a direct reward, the fear is that as soon as the reward is taken away any motivation to perform will also disappear and performance on tests could sink below their initial levels.

    Part of the American / Protestant work ethic that is so often cited is the drive to work hard even in the absence of direct reward. Such drive to work can be seen as a perpetual economic stimulus where people loan labour to the economy on a vague promise of future reward or gain. Teaching people to only work hard if cash is on the table could lead to a work ethic more like that of Greece or Spain or Italy where leisure activities take precedence.

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    • Clancy says:

      It’s also a matter of wanting people to value the larger, far-off reward over the immediate gratification. A lot of studies (I think Freakonomics covered a few of these) show that what matters in life is the ability to delay gratification. Whether it’s practicing piano to become a great musician, practicing to become an athlete, scientist, whatever, people who play the long game come out ahead.
      Paying for grades on the day of the test seems to be the opposite of that.

      I think it’s also important to consider: what are the long term benefits to the students of good grades? None, really. Until they get to high school, then grades matter for your college application, but that’s it.

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    • Alex Blaze says:

      I was thinking the opposite. I’m latino and grew up in a predominantly anglo community. The few kids I knew who would get bribed for good grades (of the few friends of mine who got that kind of reward) were WASPs. If I suggested that to my parents – who didn’t even pay me to do chores; I did chores because it was expected of me and got a small allowance because I was part of the family – they would have laughed in my face. I don’t know anyone from latino families who got paid for grades, although that’s not saying it doesn’t happen.

      I got good grades because it was expected of me and that was it. The latin work ethic that I’ve heard so much about since moving to France is that people work for their honor and money is provided to give you a certain quality of life and to keep you working for a certain company instead of a competitor. It’s what they like to say, not the complete truth, obviously, but I know more people here who have turned down raises that would have made them take on work they didn’t like than I do in America.

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  4. alex in chicago says:

    I suspect it comes from teachers who are offended by the notion that they could be made increasingly obsolete merely by paying kids to teach themselves.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 9 Thumb down 13
    • Jen says:

      I’m sure that’s it.

      Hard to explain the teachers I know in a poor urban school who actually pay the kids scoring “advanced” out of their own pockets. And no, there’s no merit pay for teachers (though principal bonuses do have some small percentage that is determined by test scores).

      The bad part is that the scores aren’t released until months later — usually when the kids are out of school. So at least one teacher has to show her current class the cash she’s then sending along to the middle school for the previous year’s high scorers.

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      • alex in chicago says:

        That’s actually of an illustration of a teacher who has given up on any other means of communicating with students.

        Basically they are saying, “I’m not good enough, but cash works.”

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      • Mike B says:

        I wonder if that teacher has considered using the “White People Method”, also discussed in Freakonomics.

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    • Jen says:

      Uh Alex, really? What is your reasoning there? I guess teachers are bad no matter what they do, that makes your commenting easier eh?

      Honestly, your response makes me regret having spent any time replying to you at all.

      Come back when you’ve spent a year teaching (I won’t ask for more, you’d not make it) in a neighborhood public school with >90% poverty rate in a blighted area.

      You know not whereof you speak.

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  5. GLK says:

    If you work for a large organization nowadays you are bombarded by the new corporate obfuscation that, in all seriousness, is trying with all it’s might to convince employees that money is a poor motivator. They have charts, graphs, powerpoints, and clever motivational speakers to back up the theory. As always the gullible are sucked in first, then the rest are drawn into the vortex whether they agree or not. I’ve been around the block enough times to have lived through several iterations of corporate newthink that’s supposed to lead to excellence. Can’t wait till this flavor of the month goes away but I fear for what’s next.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Well… it depends. Money is a good motivator in a short-term situation. It doesn’t work so well in a long-term situation. If you have a nasty work environment, and you decide to leave, then offering a huge pay raise might convince you to stay for a while, but it isn’t likely to keep you for years. I believe that the average in one study indicated that you could buy about four months with money.

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  6. Jessica says:

    I have nothing against paying kids for school work in theory, but some of the consequences outside of academics worry me. When I was growing up there was a great deal of resentment over money for grades. My brother had a learning disability, and I breezed through classes. My grandfather gave us money based on our grades, so my brother would bust his ass for a C and get $10 while I’d not even crack a book and get As for $30. He’d understandably resent that.

    In the real world, people can usually gravitate towards jobs that suit there abilities. Not in school, and forcing kids to do work that they do not have a talent for, then rewarding the kids with a talent and penalizing those with out, just creates huge problems. Your experiment – rewarding improvement/effort, wouldn’t create the same issues, but I’m not sure how practical it is for every day.

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    • Ike says:

      It was actually the reverse for a small time in my household. I was smart and could make AB with no effort and all A’s if I wanted to. My sister was a constant D. One year my father agreed to buy her a radio if she made a C average. I was upset that I never got anything.

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  7. Amanda says:

    I think what is disconcerting here is that it completely misses the point of education. Teaching kids to focus on the test, rather than the joy of curiosity and the desire to learn is a huge part of the problem in our education system. I am a sometimes high school teacher and I can tell you from experience that this is exactly the type of incentive that incites kids to cheat rather than study. Much like certain test-related Incentives by the government incited teachers to cheat in a certain book I read.

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  8. Marie-Paule Craeghs says:

    Are you familiar with the work of Alfie Kohn?
    Learning should not be framed as an economic activity, many believe, as the joy of learning is supposed to lie in the learning itself.
    It’s our nature to thrive on discovering and practising new skills, driven by our own instrinsic motivation.
    Bribing people to learn might get you better test results, but is a diversion from our goal to find satisfaction in learning, and ultimately, happiness.

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    • Bryce says:

      Well what do we do for the kids that don’t feel that way? I can tell you what motivated me in school, it was fear of my parents. Thus, I did only enough to placate them. Money would have been a much better motivator for me.

      The notion that we should expect every kid to learn just for the joy of it/delay gratification when it’s totally not in their nature strike me as those who would say there is only one way to teach math, direct instruction. There are many ways to skin a cat.

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