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.


Non-believers, I've got a little story for you about a young and seemingly unremarkable boy. He floundered in school, and had no discernable athletic or creative talents that would otherwise offset these liabilities.

His mother and father, who believed in the value of education, would scold him, threaten groundings, withhold desserts - nothing worked. Then one day a successful uncle who worked in the financial industry suggested giving the young man financial rewards for doing his school work.

This worked amazingly well and instilled in the young man an appreciation for both education and the value of money as an end in itself that would take him to the top of his game.

That young man's name? Bernard Lawrence 'Bernie' Madoff.

Eileen Wyatt

@Greg -- Thank you for speaking up. I was starting to feel like a freak, as it never would have occurred to my parents to pay me for grades or for getting chores done. Performing well in both areas was considered a requirement of civilized living, period.

As an adult, I'm better at the "lifelong learning" part than at the "clean floors" part... but if you learn enough, you find a way to pay someone else to mop the floors.


I remember the Pizza Hut 'Book It' program when I was in elementary school (late 80's, early 90's). If you read a book every month you got a free mini pizza and if everyone in your class read a book every month for something like 6 months Pizza Hut would give the class a pizza party (buy pizza for everyone and bring them to the school). I certainly remember the individual incentive to finish the book, but also the peer pressure that was placed on all of the students by the other students to make sure they were reading in order to the pizza party. It worked then with pizza so I am sure it would still work with money.


You know what taught me industriousness? My mother gave me the amount of money for school lunches at the start of each week. I was allowed to make my lunch and keep the money using the supplies in the kitchen, or buy a school lunch.


I would have been relatively wealthy under a scheme like this: Not only was my family in the below-median blue-collar economic class -- so $2 would have been a lot of money to me -- but I had always preferred reading to just about anything else. I learned to read when I was three years old. Under this program, I'd have been reading a new book every day of the week... which I was mostly doing anyway.

One of the most important determinants of a "middler's" (middle of elementary school) reading skills is the number of chapter books he's read. Reading just ten books causes a large and persistent improvement in reading skills.

I think that this skill gain is worth well more than $20 to society -- and, no, kids don't forget how to read when the money goes away! They might not all keep reading/keep improving after the program ends, but they will retain the skills they have acquired. (Why do I suspect that this silly idea is put forward by adults who firmly expect that they won't forget what they were paid to learn on the job when they leave their current employer?)

A few points:

* It's best to let the kid pick out the books. This way the $2 is an additional bonus to the pleasure, not "combat pay" for slogging through another of those stressful, tearful stories that appeal primarily to middle-aged women.

* Don't push for "hard" books. Reading fluency (which means speed and confidence) is built by reading books that are easier than you can manage.

* Test for cheating with an informal report, like "So what happened in the book?"

* Make payments prompt. The end of semester is too far away for elementary school kids.

* Put a cap on it. You didn't want to pay me $400 a year, did you? The biggest gains are pushing the kids who read zero books a year to read ten, not in doubling the number that I was reading voluntarily.

* Some (but not all) of these kids will discover that they like recreational reading and keep doing it when the external incentive goes away. I really, really, really doubt that any pre-existing bookworm will decide that they dislike being paid extra to do what they already love. The net result will be to increase the number of happy readers. This increase need not include absolutely every child to still be valuable to society.



1.) You are more likely to see long-term results with younger kids because you might "trick" them into developing good habits. They may start to read for the money, develop skills and interests, and keep going regardless. This is far less likely to happen with older kids who's habits are already set.

2.) More importantly, the problem with this is that it makes the alternative acceptable. If a child chooses not to participate, they simply don't get the cash. You turn what was otherwise unacceptable into the standard and what should otherwise be the standard into going above and beyond. Students (and anyone else for that matter) should not receive praise or incentive for doing what they are supposed to do anyway. Just like they should not be asked to do something that they are supposed to do.

Think of it this way: If your boss walked in and said, "Can you have those reports to me by Friday? I'll give you $500 if you do." Assuming it is your job to have those reports done on Friday (just as it is students' jobs to read and go to class and do their homework), this offer has just made it acceptable for you to do not your job. You can say, "No, keep your $500, I'll get to it when I get to it." Either your boss has to accept this as an acceptable response to the offer, or they can still insist on it being done on Friday, at which point they've undermined the incentive system.

Here's a new idea: hold people accountable and demand that they do what is reasonably expected of them.

I'm a teacher who works with 5-year-olds and I use this exact approach in my room with great results.


Chris Markl

@ Sean Samis
I agree, I wasn't making a critical comment, but just thinking outloud about potential unintended consequences.

@ Brett

Putting a rational story to all of our actions is easy yet also completely tautological and provides very little predictive information. Political scientists still cant figure out why we vote and instead put a random term called 'civic duty' which we cant get at to explain voting behavior. Yes I receive a benefit from donating money, but is that to say that this is the best use of my money for me? I don't think behavior economists have provided adequate evidence that this is true.

Sean Samis


I accept your explanation, but note with no small irony that worrying about unintended consequences can have --gasp!--unintended consequences.

Further, it's clear that paying children for performance is tricky; some kids might clean-up. But, on the other hand, few kids are general geniuses; most have strengths and weaknesses. If a kid is an avid reader, you may want to incent them to activities that make them well-rounded; sports, volunteering, etc. The technique must be individualized to fit the child's needs and strengths, as well as their weaknesses.

And frankly, if it costs me several hundred dollars a year to incent my kids into college scholarships; it's money well spent!


It is similar to paying blood donors which you guys mentioned in your first book. When you put a dollar value on the act, you cheapen it. They soon realize that reading is dreadful. Why else would adult have to pay us to do so? Even the kids who initially enjoyed reading would eventually learned that it is a time wasting way to make a few bucks. (Making $2 in 3-4 hours.) Now, that McJob is started to look real good in comparison.

Dave Jensen

Please read "Punished By Rewards" by Alfie Kohn. Adding to Mike's comments above, incentives replace intrinsic motivation with extrinsic reward. This teaches the "incented" (I hate when incentive is used as a verb!) that the desired behavior is not worth doing WITHOUT a bonus. I had used bonus incentives in my company and saw huge decreases in output following their use. Eliminating the entire thing made everyone happier and more productive. Using it for education is criminal.

Matthew R.

Thanks to those who mentioned "Punished by Rewards." I was unaware of this book, but now it's on my county library's request list.

I would also recommend "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Areily (ISBN 9780061353239). He has a chapter that may shed some light on this topic from a different angle. The AARP asked some lawyers to give a special rate to do legal work for the poor elderly, and only charge them $30/hour (a fraction of their actual rate). By and large, they refused. They actually were far more willing to do the work pro bono (for free), rather than get paid a fraction of their customary fee.

For the record, I incentivize my children's school work with non-monetary rewards, e.g., increased autonomy and decision-making authority ("since your grades are so good, obviously you can handle staying up later and watching TV"). They have disincentives as well in a corresponding manner ("since your grades are so poor, the time that you would have watched the Duke game we'll need to spend doing rewrites of your essay").

I give them a monetary allowance not for doing chores (which they do because they are a member of this household, and not a boarder) and not for doing well at school (which is their investment in their future selves), but for the very reason that I want them to know how to handle money. I want them to make mistakes with $20 now, rather than with $20k later. In a way I'm actually a bit disappointed that they've proven so responsible and careful with money.



Ego and vanity are great rewards too... why else would we anonymously post on a blog? Unless I'm missing where I collect payment for these comments?


I find this interesting, because back when I was in (Canadian) high school (about 10 years ago) , I was very financially incented to work hard because of scholarships. Scholarships were very winner-take-all, and it was not unusual for a top student to get 40k-60k in awards when tuition was 2k-5k a year, while a student who was a little bit worse got next to nothing.

It definately made me study harder, but there were also some negative aspects:

- It gave a huge incentive to spend money to raise your grades (some kids had a tutor in every subject, even though they were getting > 95%). This left out people who couldn't afford the investment up front (although i never paid anything and still did well).

- It only helped top students improve their grades.

- As a teenager, I had a poor concept of the value of money. I sometimes undervalued it (for example, not believing I could pay rent on 30k/year) and sometimes overvalued it (agreeing to go to the 3rd best instead of the best university for a lump sum of 10k, which I regret to this day)

This continued into university, where I estimated I got about 2k for every percentage my average was above 90%. This gave me the freedom to not work and focus on school, but I still wonder if the money could have better been spent on something better than turning a 90% student into a 95% student.

Some scholarship donors have started realizing this, and I've recently noticed "scholarship pools" springing up, for example, tech companies banding together and giving many scholarships, so that they don't all give their individual scholarships to the same person.

So, to summarize:

- Yes incentives work, although the current system is very flawed (in more ways than I described above)

- This is already going on, you just don't know about it

- I find the idea of working as hard as I did for $2 or pizza laughable



@BSK: "Think of it this way: If your boss walked in and said, "Can you have those reports to me by Friday? I'll give you $500 if you do." Assuming it is your job to have those reports done on Friday (just as it is students' jobs to read and go to class and do their homework), this offer has just made it acceptable for you to do not your job."

I'm surprised you made this analogy, because that's what everyone's boss does. Your paycheck is the financial incentive to have those reports done on Friday, and it is acceptable for you not to do your job -- it's called quitting.

It's bizarre to me that anyone expects students to do schoolwork just because an adult tells them it's "what they are supposed to do". Few of us would go to work if we weren't being paid for it; do you think kids value their time less than you value yours?

Ed Griffiths

This link gives an interesting take on the UK scheme which pays pupils to stay on for last 2 years of formal education (time during which they might take exams qualifying them for university place):

It is means tested & dependent on certain qualifying behaviour.


I also grew up during the time of Pizza Hut's Book It program. While I was already an avid reader, I remember the program encouraging the other students in my class who were not as excited about reading. I believe incentives work.

In a perfect world, parents would encourage their kids to be better students and be successful in school. In a perfect world, parental involvement in school would prevent behavior problems. In perfect world, students would be intrinsically motivated to learn and be successful.

But let's face it, we don't live in a perfect world. As a teacher, I understand that you have to meet kids where they are. If a kid needs an incentive, give them an incentive. If an incentive can help a child graduate, incent them. Students who are already intrinsically motivated will continue to be motivated.

Many of my friends were paid for making certain grades when we were growing up, but I wasn't. My parents told me they wouldn't pay me to make grades that I was perfectly capable of making without an incentive. And I was punished if I slipped below that level of appropriate grades. That was enough to earn me the number three rank in my graduating class and a full-scholarship to college. On the other hand, one of my best friends was paid to make good grades, but she struggled in school more than I did. This incentive gave her the push that she needed to put forth the extra effort that would help her make the grades she needed to reach her goal of attending college.

Regardless of what we would like in a perfect world, we need to address what works for today's students. If that's an incentive, so be it.



When I was in school, I participated in two monitary incentivized learning programs.

First, my parents paid me for end of the semester grades. I agree that more immediate rewards would probably have been more effective. As stated in another post, I did not have the comprehension of the long term future gains at both end of the semester and lifetime that I would receive if I finished a particular homework assignment.

The second program was a summer reading program sponsored by Pizza Hut. When you finished X number of books that your teacher recommended over the summer, then you earned free personal pan pizza(s).

Sean Samis

We pay our son for his grades at the end of each quarter. Since his school posts his grades on-line, he can track his likely income as frequently as he wants. It seems to work for him.


I think that money is kind of drug when it comes to incentive.

Evidently, everyone who has a concept of money which enable people to do whatever they want would realize small amount of money as very powerful thing at first.

However, I guess that the problem might start after several times. There might be big differnce views between the people who gave money to children and those who got money.

just like Relative Theory in Physics.

time goes and thier expectation will be diffrent in the future.This is not clear, I think but what I 'm trying to say is that variables which can measure with some ways will be changed.

Even though they can know how useful the incentive is, they cannot know what will happen because of different point of view of each person.

Sean Samis


It is true that we cannot be sure how paying children for their performance will affect them in the long run. But that uncertainty applies to any idea (including withholding cash incentives) and the unknown or unexpected effects could be beneficial too. What I've seen in the short run makes me optimistic.

Being unsure, we should proceed with caution, as always.