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.

John Drotar

The reason that these programs have been effective is not that they are bribery but that they create an immediate feedback loop, this is something that the gamification community (the case for playing games at work could be a great episode by the way) studies very intently.

If it were simple bribery à la Skinner box, you would see satiation and a reduction of effectiveness. Had they run this experiment 100 times at the school they would have seen more and more children taking the cookies at the end even if the rewards were greater. Also counter-intuitively a smartly designed system with non-tangible or "virtual" rewards could be more effective and for longer than it would take to arrive at satiation in the bribery experiments.

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I think you're right that fewer kids would pick the fruit-and-toy if the bribe were the same every time (how many rubber bracelets do you need?). But I'm not sure that the results would be worse than where they started off. Instead of 80% choosing fruit, you might end up with only 30% choosing fruit. But you probably wouldn't end up with 10% choosing fruit.

Part of this is because the kids would develop a notion that they were the kind of kid who usually chose the fruit. I could see this working especially well among girls: the popular girl chooses fruit, so I will, too. (Also, having tried both, some of them might have decided that the sugary dried fruit tasted better than the health-food-in-disguise cookie.)

Andrew Haugland

I really liked this episode. It reiterated a conversation I have had with my friends about the insights video games can give into micro and macro economics, social behaviors, motivations, and an entire host of other fascinating interactions. Video games (specifically the MMO (Mass Multiplayer Online) genre) are only limited by ideas that would sink the game. Want to see the effects of community self regulation to the capital degree? Convience a developer to allow players to pickpocket each other's inventory, but as soon as the deed is done mark them for global PvP (Player verse Player) combat.

Insentives in video games have long fascinated me. Take Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and League of Legends for examples. Each is an MMO of a different subgenre (FPS, RPG, MOBA respectively), but all use insentives to keep players coming back. Some use rewards of value (WoW giving new and better loot for coming back to play the newest 'raid'), and some use 100% asthetic rewards (League of Legends releasing a new outfit for a champion).

The insight that is available seems right up Freakinomics alley, and I am more than a little surprised I have not heard an episode on the topic. Just something to ponder.

As always I love your stuff, and keep up the good work!


John Glenn

I very much agree! MMOs are a vastly underused field of study.


i just want to point out that it is no longer the food pyramid but we should now follow my plate.

Jim byrd

Please see this recent article related to this discussion.


This appears to overlook something obvious, which is that the behaviours that they are trying to modify aren't universals. There are subsets of the population who actually do prefer fruit to cookies - and who save money, make 'green' modifications to their houses, chose not to smoke even before there was all the anti-smoking messaging, and indeed, who even thought that algebra class was far from boring.

So instead of blindly shooting in the dark with attempts at behavior modification, why not try to figure out why these sub-populations are different?


When my boy Archie was 2-and-a-half, he stopped eating anything but pizza and chicken nuggets. ANYTHING. We tried starving him and only offering other foods....nope. Time out? Nope. Just would rather starve. This was Christmas time, and I come from a Swedish tradition of believing in Tomten (gnomes) and trolls and such. We told Archie that we would call the Tomten and report on his eating, and if he was a good boy, he would get presents in his clogs left outside the door. Every night after dinner, I would "call", and he would put his clogs out and receive a small toy--Hot Wheels, train, bouncy-ball, whatever. On one evening, he outright refused his food, demanding in his best toddler way to have "NUGGETS!" I calmly gave him the nuggets, then made my call. The Tomten were disappointed, they told me. We put the clogs outside and went to bed. Archie found rocks in them in the morning, and was SO upset. He ate every meal after that. When Christmastime was over, my husband and I couldn't see putting away this awesome incentive, so we kept it up, making calls every night, but only providing presents once a month (usually to coincide with some other American holiday). The presents got better as he grew--DVD's, a game for his Wii, but he never failed to eat his food and try new things. He is the kid other parents say, "See, look what Archie eats!" Archie is 11 now, and only figured out that his parents were doing the work of the Tomten last year, and was really aghast at how we kept it up. "You mean, you did ALL that? The WHOLE TIME?" He may end up in therapy when he's older, but at least he's a good eater and will try almost anything. Incentive Success!


Julien Couvreur

Dubner asks a good question which was un-answered: why would the child care about or trust USDA content presented by a stranger? (Not to mention that the bad nutrition advice of the food pyramid may be part of the obesity problem)
Along those lines, I am surprise by the narrow conception of education conveyed in this episode. Education on food choice is ruled out (as "it doesn't work"), without considering education by a person with whom the child has a close relationship and bond.
Since the goal is to get a long-term effect, it seems that unless children internalize what is good and build good habits. But the experiment discussed does not seem to cover that aspect.

Julien Couvreur

When the topic changes to the role of government, Dubner states that companies have incentives to profit and government has incentive to solve problems and reduce costs (I'm paraphrasing). I have to ask, as Milton Friedman famously did: "Tell me where in the world do you find these angels who are going to organize society for you?"
There are un-examined assumptions that people in government (1) don't want job security, (2) don't want to increase their role and power, and (3) have a time horizon that is longer than the average citizen.
As James Buchanan and other public choice theorists have pointed out, reasoning about a perfect government in comparison to a realistic market is comparing apples and oranges (Nirvana fallacy). It is worthwhile to you consider politics without romance and examine the incentives of politicians (elected members of government) and bureaucrats (the unelected mass) in comparison to those of private actors in the market.



Another side of this, of course, is that companies - perhaps different ones, but still companies - are well able to make profits by providing fruit to those who like fruit. After all, your grocery store produce section is likely to have a plentiful supply of everything from apples to zucchini, none of which is supplied by the beneficience of government.

Likewise, Whole Foods and others have shown that it's possible to make profits by selling organic foods, Vanguard, Fidelity, &c make money by providing IRA and 401k plans to people who save for retirement. Other companies make profits from selling solar panels, LED lights, electric cars, and more. So it hardly seems reasonable to put the blame for some individuals' poor choices on the profit motive.


Yeah, no role for government in our fruit minus farm subsidies, inspections for quality, infrastructure to get fruits to market, etc.

Matt Streit

I wish this podcast would have talked about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. I do not doubt that many kids would choose to eat healthier desserts in the short-term when being given a prize, but what are the long-term effects? Would these kids choose to eat healthier down the road when given no prizes? And even worse, may some of the kids who previously ate healthy without being given prizes now not eat unhealthy because they expect an external incentive for eating healthy now. The researchers should have done a longitudinal study checking back in with these 1500 kids a year or two (or ten years) later and tracked what their choices were without external incentives. My fear is that this study and programs like it may have made the situation worse in the long run. Maybe positive habits were built among these kids, or maybe a culture of dependence on external rewards was created, or both. But we don't know the long-term result unless the research is done. From my perspective as a middle-school teacher, I focus on building long-term good habits over immediate rewards, and I just hope that I'm doing the right thing.



Haven't we known about reinforcing choices since 1959. Is this not just the Premack Principle?


Dubner brings up an interesting point as he's interviewing Anya. He says, "Now before we declare that a dead end, do we know that this mode of education was a good one?" The assumption is made that "since we tried a method of education and it failed then all education must be ineffective." That's a huge leap. You should look into http://www.nutrislice.com/. This is a solution that's being adopted by schools around the country that's actually improving what kids eat. From what I know they use modern marketing to sell more heathful foods to the kids. It works!

Laurie Needles

I think all parents use the bribe, ahmm "incentive", for behavioral modification in children. It works usually to some degree based on how much the child wants the bribe at that time. If my kids want dessert, they eat without being bribed. If we are at a restaurant, that is a bit easier for me to control than at home where they fill in their won rewards like going off to play even if they haven't eaten.

Secondly, fruit is too easy, get a kid to eat a vegetable, then I would think you had a real experiment. My kids, one is a carnivore and the other is a fruit bat, will go for sweet things but suggest that there is a veg in the mix and teat is what gets rejected. Try carrot cake, zucchini bread, and so forth and although it is a sweet dessert, it would get rejected.

I do agree that behavioral modification through education does not work in the short term unless it is impacting the person at the time. A person may understand already that smoking is harmful to their health, but until it impacts them, for example, they have children and find one is asthmatic, then they are impacted in a way that they must make a change.

Further, for people to change it must be a direct impact. Yes, it may impact me that green house gases are damaging the planet but it won't be uninhabitable during my, my kids, my grandkids lives so it isn't a direct impact. Getting people to see that many generations down the road an event will happen and they can have an effect on the outcome rarely works. They are not personally invested.



I recently created a product called My Balance Buddy, which is basically a magnetic rewards chart that incentivizes balanced eating for kids ages 3-10 years. I originally made it for my own sons (who are very picky eaters) to give them a visual incentive to eat a balanced diet everyday. It comes with an easy to read chart that shows parents the amount their kids should be eating in the different food groups each day. I've seen it work, firsthand, with my very picky eaters!

Here's a link to the website.... www.mybalancebuddy.com

Dmitry Petrov

For a person from Russia your conclusion that bribery works is not a revelation - even our government points out that bribery is in our culture. Saying so I agree with Matt who commented above with hypothesis if bribery may corrupt the logic of children so that they will cease to perform their obligations for free after once you rewarded for it. In reality it is a tough question as after paying once person may expect you to pay for by law or common expectation should be done for free. Funny enough in corrupted economy being moral may be more efficient: for instance, a corrupted policeman on highway stop you for breaking spead limit, you object paying bribe and demang writing a fine, policeman may release you as filing forms takes time and will earn them nothing while they could have used it for earning bribes from others. There are alike exaples from corporate experience.

Derek Shields

I really don't think that this podcast demonstrated that incentive systems can change long-term behaviors in anyone. I have a feeling any mention of Alfie Kohn will get a strong negative reaction from Freakonomics listeners, but I think he makes a stronger case that as soon as bribes stop, behavior not only returns to the way it was before, it goes even further by telling the other person that the behavior is undesirable. If I pay a child to do their homework, she likely thinks that the homework is undesirable due to my incentive system. When I stop paying, she is likely less willing to do homework than before.
The middle ground between the two Kohn and this episode is to be prepared to bribe repeatedly until the task is over. For filing timesheets on time on paper until the computer system is back up, it may only be a few weeks. For homework, it may be beyond college graduation. For healthy eating, it is the rest of your lives.