Why You Should Bribe Your Kids (Ep. 175)

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(Photo: Nana B Agyei)

(Photo: Nana B Agyei)

This week’s episode is called “Why You Should Bribe Your Kids.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Let’s say you’re trying to get a bunch of kids to eat more nutritious food. What’s the best way to do this — education, moral urging, or plain old bribery? That’s one of the questions that a pair of economists set out to answer in a recent field experiment in Chicago. In this podcast, you’ll hear from both of them: John List, a University of Chicago professor (and co-author of The Why Axis who’s familiar to readers of this blog); and Anya Samek, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

They tried several methods to see what would make kids choose fruit over a cookie. One trick, Samek tells us, easily beat the rest:

SAMEK: It actually works every time. So we come in five times and every time we have these really high rates of selection of the fruit.

The conversation then broadens, addressing the fact that so many people — kids and adults — have a hard time making good short-term decisions that will have a long-term benefit. As List puts it:

LIST: The general point here about all of this is that you have many problems where what you do now affects what happens later, and usually we choose the easier decision or the easier action now. You think about savings for retirement, you think about getting doctor check-ups, you think about going to school, you think about engaging in risky behaviors, you think about adopting green technologies for our houses. In all of these cases we usually choose the bad action. And that action is to do what’s best for us now to the detriment of the future, to the detriment of our future self. And nutritional choices right now are just one of these elements that we face in society where we need kids to recognize the choice that you make now will critically affect your outcome in the future.

James Edward Gray II

I was pretty disappointed in this episode. We've got over 50 years of pretty solid research on extrinsic motivators now, summarized in excellent books like "Punished by Rewards." I feel like this episode way overplayed the value of bribes without acknowledging any of the issues that result from their use.

Eric Booth

Note for John List and Anya Samek,

I just listed to the Freakonomics report of your experiment "incentivizing" kids to choose a healthier snack. You have a big assumption or blind spot I would like to point out. But first let me challenge your claim that the incentive produced the results you hoped for. I thought the purpose was to make the kids become healthier eaters--yet you didn't report any impact after the intervention. A week later, a month later, did the kids choose the healthier option without a reward? I think not. So all your incentivizing did was encourage them to value a reward over a slightly less appealing snack choice. Will your student helpers be there with a tray of rewards every time the kids come to a snack choice for the rest of their lives?

The blind spot in your thinking is that you mistook "bad education" for education, without trying engaging education as an option. I would wager that if a teaching artist led that brief "education session" you introduced as a variable instead of handing out written material and telling them things in a boring way, you would have many kids choosing the healthier option without wiring them to the need for a reward to make that choice. Of course bad education does not work, in a snack experiment or in a school. You just never considered that there might be better education, even engaging education, that could accomplish much of the goal of the reward, without wiring them to the reward. If the process of learning can be relevant and engaging, you don't need incentives or the attachment to rewards for performance that come with them.

I will wager you serious money that if a teaching artist were to lead the education session in your experiment, you would have very different results. I have worked with teaching artists for thirty years, and I have seen the astonishing results that smart, creative educators can deliver. So, your experiment isn't done til you test the variable you didn't consider.


Kenny Davidson

Perhaps the worst Freakonics podcast I've heard. Not that anything was particularly offensive, but as many of the comments already show, there was so much overlooked. I've come to expect some civilized push back and serious questions from Dubner, but it was lacking today. Sure positive reinforcement can modify behavior - duh! So can negative reinforcement. But there is a much bigger moral question that was overlooked: Who pays for these incentives and where does the money come from?

When a dad bribes his kids to eat more fish, or as I did, drive through their teen years without a ticket or accident, it is a voluntary arrangement. But when the guest suggested a policy solution of taking money from the productive employed, to pay children and/or their parents to stay in school, he lost all moral credibility. I wonder if he has ever heard of a private scholarship fund that operates on donations?

He could have just as well suggested 40 lashes for children who skip school - it would be effective, but not exactly politically correct. Such incentives succeed in the near-term objectives (keeping kids in school) but the question of whether students who are not eager to learn anyway actually benefit from such prolonged captivity was never addressed.



Having kids stay in school and become more educated has massive societal benefits - it's worth the tax money, "moral" or not.

It's the same with paying to have healthier kids - bribing children to eat better is reletively cheap compared to inflating health costs, esp. if you consider that most kids are served fruits and veggies but just throw it away (see List's paper or one of his cited papers by Just and Price from 2011).

Even if students "who are not eager to learn anyway" do not personally "benefit from such prolonged captivity" as you suggest, we know society benefits because it keeps them from other more wasteful/harmful activities for at least the time they are, as you say, 'captive.

Kent Williams

Giving students or their parents money to stay in school sounds like it should work, but consider this: private schools (where parents actually pay the school) have higher test scores and fewer drop outs. The reason for the success is likely not paying the school per se, but the parental dedication both to the child's education and to their investment. Something given is rarely as cherished as something earned.

John Sadoff

There are a lot of questions about the efficacy of incentivizing students to do well in school and not drop out because of the difficulties they have of seeing the long term benefits of their education. I was wondering if there has been any talk about trying to increase students ability to see in the long term. I'm an advocate of teaching kids chess, which among other skill sets teaches students to develop long term plans. I believe developing students ability to see the long term is an important skill set- one of the very purposes of education is to develop important skill sets that are important for graduating college and being successful in the workforce. I also believe one of the most important skills to learn is long term planning and thinking ahead- we constantly have to make decision in our lives that weigh immediate versus long term goals. I worry that bribing kids for the immediate results of getting good grades, eating well, doing their homework, staying in school and doing well on exams-takes away from teaching them the very skill that is needed for success beyond school: being able to think ahead. Should schools develop a curriculum that teaches kids how to think ahead and the importance of thinking ahead. The ultimate question with the best approaches in education : what is the purpose of education? is it for students to just graduate? do well on exams? Or actually have skill sets that area meaningful and practical. I believe the ability to think in the long term is a very practical and meaningful skill- one that schools need to but don't emphasize enough.


Steve Fawcett

I feel like the study done at the University of Wisconsin doesn't focus on the long term. Incentives pay off in the short term. In the long term they can make even the most intrinsically motivated kids who wanted to eat the fruit in the first place not want to after the incentive is taken away. Kids are missing the point in why they are eating the fruit, but will reluctantly do it in order to receive the plastic statue. By doing this, kids don't see the positive health benefits of extra energy, increased fiber, sweet and delicious fruit; they only see the trophy. I feel if anything, incentives control children into doing what the adults want and don't help them think for themselves. I would recommend reading: "Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Kohn.


During the experiment with the children choosing fruit or a cookie, what did the children eat for the meal before they were asked to selected a desert?

If they ate a healthy meal and then chose to eat a cookie afterwards, I would think that a perfectly reasonable part of a balanced diet. I image that the education they were given would have supported this - a small portion of refined sugary food is ok from what I know of the food pyramid.

Or were they were given a fatty/deep fried, unhealthy meal before then being instructed to choose a desert? This seems more likely given that they couldn't even access fresh fruit for the schools. The education is then undermined in a different way. A child may logically think "if they say that we should eat according to the food pyramid but then give us unhealthy food than clearly it's not that important." Or it might lead to the concept of healthy eating being more abstract to the children, in that it is something that 'should be done' but is not related to the immediate food choice right here and now



Very interesting. However, there is an element missing: emotional connection. If you do not find an emotional connection, there is no incentive that may work.

Dave J.

Interesting to see a pizza place bribing kid customers with 'study hall' promotion to win free pizza.

Posted at Cheezburger's FailBlog of all places: http://cheezburger.com/8259631360


3 things:
1) I'd love to see a study punishing children for eating poorly and see if the negative feeling can discourage eating during and after the experiment. Better think that one through carefully though... maybe tell all the kids in the school they have a gift and take the gift away from kids who eat cookies?
2) Here's an interview with one of the earlier published researchers on bribing children to eat well: http://youtu.be/tqq4RAWAew4
3) RE: ~7 minutes in - I wonder if it'd be helpful to tell kids that eating better will help them with things they might care about more than school (e.g. video games?)

J Bro

Didn't San Francisco pass a law regarding toy prizes in fast food meals aimed at kids? In that case, the incentive seemed to be directed at the Fast Food companies. If they made the food "healthier" via more fruit/vegetables, then they can give the kids a toy. Otherwise, the toy must be purchased, and the money goes to a charity.

So the fast-food companies long ago (when did toys show up in happy meals?) figured out that this works. Pediatricians and parents in SF felt that removing the toy would change the behavior (kids won't want toy-less happy meals) and help fight childhood obesity. I'm curious what that law has done to affect kid's habits, if at all.

Just so i'm not mis-representing myself, i think that the message in this podcast, where rewards are given for behaviors that should be expected, are fundamentally flawed. My children get negative reinforcement when they make unhealthy eating choices. ("if you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding!") This avoids the problems that occur when the incentive is removed. This seems frowned upon, as any punishment kids receive seems socially unacceptable today.

For me, it all boils down to a "socially neutral" line that i've drawn for my family. Things that fall on the line (neither rewarded nor punished) are expected from everyone in the family. This would include cleaning your room, doing your chores on time, getting some exercise outside, and finishing your homework on time. I give incentives to my kids when they show initiative, like doing someone else's chores as well as their own, or offering to cook for the family one night. Punishments occur when they don't meet the "line", like failing to clean up a mess they made after they were done playing. Also, the punishment will match the fault, when possible. For example, I've taken all the toys that were left out and put them away for a period of time. Or they loose screen time if they won't go outside to play on a nice day.

The biggest issue I have with this "bribe your kids" logic is similar to the problem with "everyone's a winner" logic that permeates our lives here in the US. If everyone is a winner, then everyone is a loser, too, and winning doesn't mean anything. No one has a right to be told they are useful or good. They must prove this with effort and imagination. Don't reward a kid for NOT BEING FAT. Teach them that NOT BEING FAT is a reward in itself. That's easier to do when they see that the fat kid doesn't fit down the tube-slide.


Greg Smith

Even if it works and you are very sure the outcome, like quitting smoking, is unquestionably good, I'm still uncomfortable with the Big Brotherness of these incentive policies.

Isn't our humanity diminished somewhat when we are treated like children?


I really appreciate the study Anya Samek is/was doing with the children and I know Dubner seemed to make a little light of this in the podcast but, I don't understand why any child would take dried fruit over a cookie without incentive. Feel like that's offering a child sudoku or cartoons. Tom and Jerry ALL DAY!

Nobody wants their kid to turn out like this
but what we really want is for them to be healthy AND enjoy the treats of life. Why not teach the benefits of utilizing them both?

*above is my main point, this is just the (asterisk) kicker, but the truth is, that cartoons, video games, cookies, alcohol aren't really 'bad' but, an excessive use of them is- like anything. Like that guy who OD'd on his CSA? Yeah, that farm fresh watercress....but for real- how bout a nice big salad with a bit of cheese and nuts and then slammin it home with a good ol bowl of Phish Food? Like my dad used to say, "Moderation..." ( a man of few words)
But,who am I to say what the truth is, but then again, who else can say what it is? But is that a contradiction when I say that no one knows that truth? Sounds like I know the truth, and the truth is, that no one knows it. Gotta be a contradiction in there.....



"...I don’t understand why any child would take dried fruit over a cookie without incentive."

Because they think the dried fruit tastes better? At least better than store-bought cookies, if not my homemade ones. (Which may well have dried fruit in them, if I'm feeling creative.) Certainly I think I would have made that choice as a kid, although being a poor country kid, I had limited opportunity to actually do so. But I do remember that store-bought stuff just didn't taste all that good (and still doesn't, mostly). Is this just habit, or is there something more fundamental at work?

PS: They didn't have sudoku when I was a kid, but even after we finally got TV (I was maybe 12?), I'd still grab the crossword out of the daily paper in preference to watching TV. So why do some/most kids today seem to like TV so much that people (like J Bro, above) can deprive them of 'screen time' as a punishment? Is it just a habit formed at an early age? Might explain why I've never had a TV as an adult.


Phil Cernanec

Interesting podcast, and I believe the key question asked is whether the healthy-eating education is effective. As was pointed out, incentivizing seems to only provide limited, and short-term behavioral change. My hypothesis/observation is that when there is a 'deeper'/possibly visceral-level understanding of the impact of the choices, we make 'wiser' choices. Where 'wiser' choices are more consistent with our longer term values.

For example, individuals will make 'better' tradeoffs in their spending/saving behavior when their desire for a 'comfortable retirement' is better quantified, and the impact of their behavior now is better understood in the context of being able to achieve what they value, their goal.

When one has some 'visceral' understanding of what healthy eating feels like, versus unhealthy eating, better/healthier behavior is more likely. Wouldn't a re-design of the education, where the children can feel the differences their choices will make in the way they feel, in what they can do, and in how they may be perceived, have more impact than observing, and even intellectually understanding, the 'plate' posters.

More effective learning can be gained by 'making mistakes.' Children/people learn 'HOT' by touching something 'HOT,' and then avoiding the unpleasantness or burn going forward. If the education could be built around developing developing a 'visceral' sense of what healthy versus unhealthy eating (and exercise) has one feel, might that be more effective, even over any external incentives?



I'm not sure how you can do an entire episode about using incentives to do behavioral conditioning without talking to any psychologists... While this podcast is normally excellent, I'm afraid that the main thing I took away from this episode is that some prominent economists are blissfully ignorant about basic psychology.