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?

Derek Conklin

Why not pay kids to acquire scholarships? 10% perhaps.

I can't say I agree with paying kids for grades. Unless the parents are wealthy, it may only work with a selfish small-minded brat. I wouldn't go for the idea of taking money from my parents. In fact, I never requested a allowance or anything besides Christmas, and when I was 17 I contributed $20k towards the mortgage and bills before moving out.

Which brings up another argument -- are grades actually worth anything? By high school, I stopped caring about school. I did excellent on tests but never turned in homework, and generally slept through class. I found my computer was better stimulating, and began self-teaching and entrepreneurship. No regrets, my peers accumulate debt and work in retail -- I'm a software engineer outpacing people double my age.

Schools don't teach or reward logic. They only thing they're decent at is producing small-minded tools who adhere to the liberal hivemind. What is an A worth? Perhaps thousands for an average student... perhaps a net loss of millions for an above average thinker.


1.0 GPA

Seriously when will Freakonimcs tackle issues such as education from an ECONOMIC perspective rather than a business/sensationalist perspective?

Paying kids to incentivze studying? really? thats the best you guys can come up with? Reminds me of this group people i know (politicians) whose line of thinking goes "Oh, something's wrong? Throw money at it! That ought to fix it"

The real problem is not the lack of incetives on the students side but rather the SCHOOL side! When students get dumb, the school usually just hides behind some absurd 'Title this and Title that" to continue gettting funded when it needs to be punished.

The problem is more than just teacher unions, it is the existence of a MONOPOLY by these schools/districts.

Richard Taylor

I think Roland Fryer's Conditional Cash Transfer work is more interesting, however if you want to do serious work about what works (and doesn't in education) you'd be better designing your research using the principles set out in the report co-authored by Ben Goldacre ( Ben actually touched on this very issue in his speech at the Wellington Festival of Education (in the UK) last Sunday.


I wonder what would happen if you investigated ethnic differences more strongly? You didn't have a big Asian subsample, but I bet there would be a substantial minority of Asian kids in some communities who would have responded well even for a one month deferred $20 reward.

Some of these treatments might work quite differently for different groups. Think of a drug that's highly significant only for different subsets. Grouping them together to look for coherent treatment effects underestimates the significance of a treatment for highly idiosyncratic minorities and lumps them in with very culturally different groups for a bleached, average effect.


In families where education may not be valued, there is no intrinsic motivation (i.e., demonstration of knowledge). Unfortunately, providing extrinsic motivation to learn is difficult.

Dimitri Shukuroglou

Interesting results, however it's application to the process of learning is questionable in terms of creating well rounded, mentally agile, free people who know through experience that the only type of leverage that exists in this world is knowledge. Reinforcing these behaviours is just going to create hard to break habits and limited empathy (one of the greatest determinants of leadership).

As stated earlier by so many, money shouldn't be used as our only incentive to work, as we stop performing when it runs out. Beyond that its a very limited view of what is and should continue to be a far richer transactional relationship.

I believe in building well rounded and robust people, we should be teaching children that there is also such a thing as intrinsic motivation. If all people were purely motivated by low risk behaviours in return for direct extrinsic monetary reward, then Steve Jobs would have still been a middle manager at Atari. If we build people who only value direct extrinsic monetary reward as a measure of their ability/performance/self-esteem/etc, we will have no self motivated entrepeneurs, no risk takers, none of those people that dare to be different because they chose to believe in something and make it happen.

One of my greatest learning experiences was as a conscript for a year working for about £60 a month. As long as you have your basic needs eg security, food and bed covered and you feel as an integrated member of a group, there are many more ways to get people working round the clock beyond extrinsic monetary motivation. History is full of such examples. Kids should know this experientially.



25 bucks for an A? Yeah, no. When I was in Junior High all I got was a single dollar per A I got on my report card and nothing for anything less. But since school was already easy and I was getting A's anyways I didn't care much.

Actually, school being easy for me was probably the reason they didn't pay me more, as it wouldn't motivate me to do any better anyways, and it's not like I was going to start doing badly just for the sake of getting attention.

And I know for a fact that my brother got paid more than me, not only for A's, but for B's and C's too. So not fair.

There's nothing wrong with bribing kids to be try harder, and I got ripped off as a child. :(.

Oh well, what money I didn't get from my parents, I got from my University who gave me a full ride scholarship all the way through my Master's degree.

Hey, wait. Aren't scholarships like bribes to do well in school? Let's see... They give you money to do well in your classes and if you don't do well, you don't get more money... Yeah, to all of those people who say that bribing students doesn't encourage them, you've obviously never taken a hard look at students on scholarships and all of the others who wish they were.


John G

I wonder if kids who need bribing to perform well in school are more likely to become economists or otherwise work in finance? Poll the financial industry to see what percentage of workers and bosses were bribed to earn good grades. Compare that percentage to a sufficiently large sample of non-financial workers and bosses. Also, poll those convicted of financial fraud. I'd like to read the results.

Economists are more likely to cheat, according to one study abstract I read.

Economists see the world differently, in my opinion, kind of from an autistic-like maximize-yourself position. They project their own "I should always maximize my position" mentality onto the rest of the world and unwittingly concoct black-swan-ignoring formulas for their narrow financial work or for grandiose master-of-the-universe treatises.

Remember Long Term Capital? Two econ Nobel Laureates -- bankrupt in about 5 years.

I have a friend with a PhD in math from a renowned university. He taught at another renown university before taking a finance job, where he worked directly under an econ Nobel laureate. In the lead up to the big crash, I repeatedly asked him about alarming bubble warning signs. His answer: "I know how smart these people are I work with and there's no way they'd let a major economic calamity happen." I reminded him of Long Term Capital. He shrugged it off.

I think economists exhibit master-of-universe thinking more than any other group of authors I've read. At least metaphysical and philosophical authors primarily value mental space. Economists seem to seek a grand controlling understanding of the Big Picture based on token-exchanging robot-models of people, with X inputs and Y outputs. Repeated smacks in the face by mountains of randomness and pesky previously unknown variables don't deter them. They seem half autistic.

Regarding money as a motivator for children, there are many other motivators: love of a subject (I know engineers who went bonkers for engineering when quite young; same with writers falling in love with writing and musicians with music and mathematicians with math); love of praise (from parents); competition with peers (wanting to beat classmates); love of a non-academic activity (sports, computer games, watching tv and movies, hanging out with friends) that can be withheld by parents for under-performing in school; fear of parental disapproval (oral reprimands, physical punishment, now just isolation, i.e., being grounded, but formerly also spanking).

Money, money, money. What a joke. I've spent lots of time with extremely wealthy people (with private jets, butlers and cooks) and they're boring, lagging others in personal growth (because of yes-men, in my opinion) and pitifully reliant on decorators, art collectors et al. to tell them what they like or is good instead of thinking for themselves. Their mentalscape is quite banal and in many ways insecure (name dropping at age 70? how lame!).

I think the real problem with academically-struggling children is lack of parental help. Good parents sit down with struggling children and help and monitor them during homework and test studying. Parents who don't do that and offer pay instead are really trying to pay their way out of this responsibility. But to children, money never equals parental time. Sitting with children while they do homework, even when not directly helping them often, also conveys a deep concern and love that payoffs can't touch. Children feel valued by this time and these feelings bond with the idea of working hard. I doubt any such positive effects result from parents dangling money at children for good grades, since parents aren't spending any more time with their struggling children.



Just heard this story on NPR. So, my son has always responded to bribes while my daughter, as you said, has historically tried her hardest without bribes. The problem? Now my son has learned to hold out for the bribe - this requires a new form of present-day strictness that the early days of bribing him initially spared me and didn't predict.

ginardo napoli

I've been a teacher for 15 years at a high school. My freshmen Algebra One classes are usually wrought with large groups of irresponsible students because they are 14 years old suddenly discovering the fruits of youth in a pool of their peers.

I offer them this reward that I tell them a few weeks before the state testing: "If you get a 3, you automatically pass with a D. If you get a 5, you automatically get an A."

(The scale is out of 5 and a 3 is considered proficient. )

Now in the earlier years of my career, I didn't offer them this reward. It has only been the last 2 years, and the results of this year are not available. The results weren't statistically different. And I did a Chi-Square and Multiple regression analysis.

To be fair, I have become a better and better teacher over the years. And the results are really from one year only. But I have two classes of freshmen, which is a 40% or more sample of the entire freshmen class.

I do attest however to the "taking away" incentive. Loss aversion is an exceptional motivation for adolescents in general, and for those for whom nothing applies, they are the exception rather than the rule. I had one student whose mother took away her curling iron until she brought her grade up to a "B". For other students it was the cell phone, or the video game console; or they had to drop out of a sport. They tend to become motivated because they want to get back to what they perceive as "lost" or they want to make good on their mistakes. The actual fear of losing a privilege doesn't have its motivating effect until AFTER the privilege is taken away and then used as a wedge to obtain improved outcomes. The results are not 100% effective, however I have not witnessed the mere threat of taking away privilege to have a greater stimuli to outcomes.