The danger of extrinsic rewards on motivation – What I learned from my 5 year old

Another quick one, prompted by an interesting behaviour exhibited by my daughter today that taught me rather a lot about extrinsic rewards.

I have mentioned before the research that has been done on motivation in the past by the likes of Edward Deci and the writing of Dan Pink and more. All of them point to the same thing, extrinsic rewards are bad for intrinsic motivation. The basic reasoning is that at some point, no matter how careful you are, the reward will become the reason to do the task. The extrinsic reward replaces the original intrinsic motivation.

I have in the past spoken about my daughters reward chart. On early post of mine was about what Super Nanny had taught us about gamification and what it meant for the next few generations. We had tried to be very careful about how we used the reward chart – knowing what I know about the nature of motivation. Stickers got harder to get as she mastered the art of being good!

Recently we thought we had cracked it. The reward chart had not been used in many weeks – job done. Or so we thought.

This morning I had the following conversation with my daughter.

Daughter: “Daddy.”

Me: “Yes dear.”

D: “I haven’t had a sticker on a reward chart in ages.”

M: “No sweatheart. You have been really good recently, there has been no need to use it.”

D: “Oh. Well. I was quite naughty yesterday. Can we start using it again, then I can get that My Little Pony I wanted.”


So there we have it. Total proof that the extrinsic reward has, in her mind, become a main reason to be good.

More work ahead I feel!


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16 thoughts on “The danger of extrinsic rewards on motivation – What I learned from my 5 year old”

  1. Referring to Octalysis, parenting often utilizes “Development & Accomplishment” (stars/stickers), “Ownership & Possession” (candy/toys), “Loss & Avoidance” (punishing/grounding). You should look into Epic Calling & Meaning and Expression of Creativity & Feedback 😉

  2. I’m also rethinking my approach with reward charts. My 7 year old has a fairly complicated points system where he can earn points by doing various positive things from playing nicely with his younger siblings to doing his homework. He then gets to spend them on the things he likes doing, playing on the Xbox watching a movie etc. and there are other rewards for hitting certain points totals. It worked really well, but we ran out of sheets of paper and didn’t get round to setting up a new chart for a week or two, now it’s really hard to get him to do anything you want him to do. I was thinking of redesigning it (especially after watching Sebastian Deterding’s Google talk the other day) but I think it’s probably better to find other ways and stop using him as a lab rat (kidding!).

    • Which we thought we had achieved – the reward schedule had elongated to the point she was getting none, but was still being good. One critical error was leaving an old reward chart where she could see it 🙂 @e82870bc52d2609d52dc26b66de16000:disqus

      • Yeah, but it is also possible to change an extrinsic reward (result) into a useful kind of trigger (cause) to start the desired behavior. The challenge: to visualize the new reward that is more satisfying than the old one (now the trigger)…

  3. i had to rethink my reward chart too – when my lil man was about 5 (they are very clever) he had to get stars and it got to the point that when he reached his target the response was ‘well i have my stars for today’ hmmm

    • Hi @twitter-36331462:disqus Yes, she is a bit too clever with it. We had it so that she would get a cross in a box if she was really naughty and could get 3 per chart. She basically worked out she could be really bad a few times and still get her reward – so used it to full advantage!!


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