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  Home  > Child/Family Wellness  > Myth: Punishments and Rewards Are Effective Ways of Reinforcing Desired Behaviors.

Myth: Punishments and Rewards Are Effective Ways of Reinforcing Desired Behaviors.

Fact: There is now a mountain of research indicating that punishments and rewards fail miserably in producing lasting change. Any changes last only as long as the punishments and rewards are in effect. If the objective is compliance, rewards and punishments work very well.

If we want to help children become more responsible and caring, rewards (or punishments) won't work. A child who is promised a treat for acting responsibly has no reason to keep behaving that way when there is no longer a reward for doing so, because reinforcements do not generally alter the attitudes and emotional commitments underlying behaviors.

Punishments and rewards teach that kindness is a commodity that can be bought or bartered. They also keep children dependent on authority figures who reward them for positive behavior and punish them for negative behavior, thus teaching them to perform responsibly for a payoff rather than out of any inner motivation. Behavior modification techniques teach only one thing "If I do this, I get that."

The belief that the best way to get something done is to provide rewards to people when they act how we want them to, lives in our collective consciousness and affects what we do every day. "We do not have the belief, it has us." We take for granted that this is the logical way to raise children, teach students, and manage employees. We promise an ice cream to the 5-year-old if she keeps quiet in the supermarket; extra time in front of the TV if she has her bath. To induce students to learn we offer stickers, certificates, membership in elite societies, and, above all, good grades. If the grades are good enough, we may hand out bicycles, cars, or cash. And for employees to improve productivity, we offer vacations and special parking places.

In a very limited sense, rewards and punishments do work. In the short-term, we can get people to do any number of things by making it worth their while. The negative effects appear over a longer period, and by then their connection with the reward may not be obvious.

Rewards are easy to use. It takes time, effort, thought, patience, and talent to really investigate a problem and help people to do their best. Handing out stars and stickers is so much easier! However, not only do they not address the problem at hand, the more rewards are used, the more they are needed.

Why Rewards and Punishments Fail to Produce Lasting Change

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