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Alfie Kohn, rewards… and parecon


Some thoughts on alternative education author Alfie Kohn today. I started with his book, “Punished by Rewards”, which discusses why rewards (grades, gold stars, salary bonuses or any other kind of bribes) are not good things – not in workplaces, not in families, and not in schools. Why? Five reasons, Alfie says:

1. Rewards are the flip side of punishment – we agree that we don’t like punishment, but rewards are just as controlling.

2. Rewards rupture relationships – because they are a form of control and a form of judgment, rewards are poison to relationships. They make it hard for the person rewarded to ask for help, for example, because the rewards make them feel judged.

3. Rewards avoid root causes – if someone is “misbehaving” or making an error, it should be viewed as a sign of some problem that has a cause, and that cause can be addressed and understood. But rather than trying to figure out causes (physical, physiological, etc.) dangling rewards offers a quick fix that doesn’t address the root of the problem. In that sense rewards are un-radical.

4. Rewards discourage risk-taking. If you are doing something for a reward, you are going to look for the easiest and surest way to the reward, as opposed to outside-the-box thinking required for open-ended problems.

5. Rewards destroy intrinsic motivation. Kohn cites various studies showing how when people do tasks for rewards they lose interest in them much faster than when they are not doing tasks for rewards.

Interestingly, he is also against praise. He is against praise because it is just a verbal reward. He differentiates praise, however, from encouragement and feedback: Spontaneous expressions of happiness or delight or gratitude are fine. Comments on how something was done that can improve performance and point to changes are useful. Praise as a form of control is poison.

But then, you ask, how do you motivate people? Kohn’s answer is, you don’t. You can create the conditions that encourage intrinsic motivation, but you cannot motivate people. How do you get them to be nice? Not by enforcing rules of nice-ness, or even rewarding niceness, but by being nice and creating a nice environment (Barbara Coloroso, the topic of the previous two blogs at killingtrain.com, says the same thing). This is close to some other related material I’ve been reading on alternative education – John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, A.S. Neil – and to my mind it is basically an anti-authoritarian, or anarchist, idea. If you believe that what is in people is basically good, you create conditions in which they are free and they can practice being free and being good, being ethical and motivated. I agree with it, and I found it validating. Many times in my life I have been complemented and praised and found it grating and annoying, and couldn’t explain why. “They’re just trying to be nice”, I would think to myself, “why do I find them so annoying?” I realize now I was just bristling at the fact that the praise was a light and difficult-to-detect kind of control.

Kohn puts all this analysis in a framework of anti-behaviourism and a critique of Skinner. Some who know Chomsky’s history know that Chomsky started his career with a very thoroughgoing critique of Skinner and behaviourism as well, for some of the same reasons Kohn uses. Kohn argues, convincingly, that behaviourism – the idea that we can train people like we train rats – is a pervasive theory of human behaviour in our culture, and it has to go.

I’d like to take a second and think about whether this has relevance to leftists. First off, as I said above, I think Kohn is basically taking a piece of the anti-authoritarian tradition and developing it. In that sense, I think it is basically a left idea that he is using, about human dignity being basic and intrinsic and how preserving it leads to good things, trampling it to bad things. But are leftists also behaviourists, sometimes, and if so, should we discard that behaviourism? I think the answer to both questions is yes. I have encountered what Kohn calls “praise junkies” in activist circles. People who are offended when they are not thanked for doing tasks, for example. I’ve always gotten a little annoyed when people *did* thank me for doing tasks – as in hey, I didn’t do it for you to thank me, pal. But the real annoyance is that instinctual annoyance at even light forms of control. Someone taking on the role of thanker or praiser is someone taking authority on to themselves, authority over the person thanked or praised. Behaviourism also shows up in meetings that run like traditional classroom sessions, with a teacher in charge at the head of the class (perhaps Barbara Coloroso would call this “brick wall facilitation”. But there’s also what she would call “jellyfish facilitation”, in which there is no structure or direction or leadership and everyone in the meeting flails without any respect for each other’s time and no sense of where anything is going. The alternative to these in her scheme would be “backbone facilitation”, where there is structure but not authoritarianism of rewards or punishments).

I also wonder though about what the implications of these ideas about rewards are for participatory economics, or parecon. In a participatory economy, people are remunerated for effort and sacrifice expended in useful labor. Are these differential rewards going to kill intrinsic motivation? I suppose they are mostly for work that is not intrinsically motivating, which is why they should be highly rewarded. The logical conclusion of Kohn’s ideas if we hold the values of equity, solidarity, and self-management is that we should basically have everyone work the same and basically have everyone remunerated the same. That removes rewards from the equation. But can we trust intrinsic motivation to get all the jobs done, including the shitty ones? Or do we have to provide material incentives? And if we do, is that behaviourism? Something to think about…

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