Rewards and incentives

28 09 2015

The incentive theory of motivation suggests that we are motivated to engage in behaviors in order to gain rewards (Source: While rewards can be intrinsic and extrinsic, the most obvious way to motivate others is through offering extrinsic rewards. It doesn’t matter even if we are doing only the usual, ordinary things that we are anyways expected to do i.e. our duties,  the performance of which of course will have significant returns that we are interested in and care for – salary/wages for the work done, good job for the grades we get, facilities and protection for the taxes we pay,  better surroundings for the civic sense we display etc. These returns are usually long-term benefits, the value of which we can easily take for granted.  We need that quick gratification and encouragement – an occasional pat on the back, an appreciation for our work or good behavior, recognition for our achievements etc. to motivate us to keep doing all those things and in a better way. That’s how everything works. At workplace, managers and leaders routinely appreciate good work of the subordinates and recognize individual/group achievements through both monetary and non-monetary rewards. At school, teachers encourage good behavior, class participation and academic performance of students by giving badges, stars, and other forms appreciation and recognition. We crave and revel in them.

But what if we expect such extrinsic rewards for each and every deed of ours? What if we are addicted to them and are too needy? The result of such excessive reliance on extrinsic rewards is a condition called “codependency” (ill-effects: dampening of internal drive, always trying to meet others’ expectations), which obviously is very detrimental to one’s personal growth and happiness.

Now coming to the reason why I got onto this topic in the first place. My son. I expect him to spend some time – not much: could be as less as 15 minutes daily to start with (he is in 3rd grade) – regularly on his academics, but of course he resists and thinks that I’m overbearing. We have a difference of opinion there. I think that it’s the least he can do and one of his duties as a student. He obviously disagrees. One day, he advises me to offer him lots of rewards in order to motivate him to do his 10 minute study. Well, I was speechless.

I have a fundamental issue with this attitude. I believe that one doesn’t have a right to talk about or demand “their rights” unless they fulfill their duties. Duty precedes rights/rewards. Moreover, this goes against one of the basic tenets of The Gita – do not  focus or attach yourself to the results but rather to your deeds/efforts/duties. I strongly believe in this philosophy. While I understand that it’s not easy to completely ignore or detach oneself from the results, excessive focus on results will be ineffective and spoils the fun.

And then I heard Steven D. Levitt, one of the Freakonomics authors, pitching us to bribe our kids to try on tests in their new book – When to Rob a Bank, a collection of blogposts. His point is – kids can’t really be expected to be motivated by the long term benefits of education/academic performance. According to him, it would be more fruitful to offer them money before a test and take it back or not after the test based on their performance on the test. This way, the students would more likely to do well on their tests. And he genuinely puzzles over the criticism this brilliant idea of his generally garners. It works, doesn’t it??

We know extrinsic rewards work. We all need them – in one form or the other. But what is the tipping point, where its intended positive effects start to turn sour?? Well, do we even realize that there’s a flip-side to it, in the first place? Like everything in life, the reward system needs a balance. The society should understand this fact and promote a more balanced and healthy motivation system as part of its culture.




One response

1 10 2015

Good one. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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