Rewards, Motivation, and Learning


     Fred resents the harsh language I have used to describe his 'treatment' ideas, and his outrageous ignorance in proclaiming that 'token economies' are 'effective' in promoting new learning and positive change. I have very little interest in Fred and his feelings. I am concerned, instead, for those who have no voice here: for the 'clients' he hurts and demeans.

     How else can the 'conventional wisdom' of the 'treatment professionals' be challenged, if not by harsh language? These people simply do not respond to research or to reason. And the research here is absolutely definitive. It has been for decades.

     If Fred is unwilling to read and respect the results of science, if he insists that behaviorism 'works', and that token economies 'help people learn', then he is engaged - pure and simple - in propaganda and dissimulation. Doesn't a spade deserve to be called a spade?

     There is no room for debate here. This isn't a matter in dispute. 'Reward' programs DEPRESS the natural learning rate. Period.

     Behaviorism and token economies cannot even THEORETICALLY work. For example, a simple mirror-image rule - which any child can learn in a minute or two - CANNOT be derived from a patterned series of 'reinforcement events', no matter how long the series is run. This can be shown formally. To write a mirror-image rule, you MUST use a language beyond that of a Markov chain, and all S-R series can be shown to have the characteristics of a Markov chain. This is elementary. It is inexcusable that Fred justifies his punitive treatment methods without knowledge of - or perhaps with knowledge, but without admitting - this fundamental analytic fact. If Fred has found some flaw in Chomsky's famous proof of this matter, THEN I will retract my charges against him.

     Empirically, too, it has long been known that behavioristic methods of CONTROL depress the normal learning rate. 'Token economies' work - as do other 'reward' systems - as mechanisms of CONTROL. But they INTERFERE WITH intrinsic motivation and cognitive innovation - even in laboratory animals. (A good introduction to the animal experimentation literature, well referenced, can be found in T. Leahey and R Harris, 1997, Learning and Cognition).

     It is unlikely that Fred - or other treatment professionals who post here, and who also engage in punitive actions against their clients in order to earn money - will read the research. People who have a strong interest in an untruth do not seek the truth. But, until my voice is excluded from this forum, I will insist upon confronting dishonesty and self-serving dissimulation.

     In 1961 (1961!), Louise Miller flashed simple drawings of faces on a screen, exposing two slightly different images at a time. Then she repeated the series, and challenged her 72 subjects - nine-year-old boys - to discriminate between the two 'faces'. Some of the subjects were paid; others were not. Given the still reigning behavioristic orthodoxy of that day, the results were a surprise, though we now take them for granted.

     The boys who were rewarded for making correct discriminations consistently did more poorly than those who were NOT paid. It did not matter how much they were paid (from 1cent to 50 cents), or whether they were 'high' or 'low' achievers (measured by the 'achievement motivation' scale). Across the board, reward DEPRESSED learning.

     A year later, Sam Glucksberg gave graduate students at NYU a puzzle to solve. They were handed matches and thumbtacks in their boxes, and a small candle, and told to mount the candle on a wall using ONLY these materials. To solve the problem required creative thought. (You take the matches OUT OF the box, tack the box to the wall, then place the candle inside the now-suspended box).

     Some graduate students were promised payment if they solved the puzzle. Others were NOT offered a reward. Results: mean time to solve the puzzle was INCREASED by around 50% when rewards were introduced. Rewards DEPRESSED creative learning. This was in 1962!!!

     In the early 1970s, Janet Spence (later President of the APA) published several studies in which children were presented with word pairs, one of which the experimenter arbitrarily designated as the 'right' word. The children were asked to remember the 'right' word. Some of the children were told they would be rewarded for remembering the 'right' word, others were not (the reward was M&Ms).

     Children who received candy for right responses as the experiment was run, or even those who were promised that they would LATER be given candy for their correct responses, consistently did worse than children who simply were encouraged to 'play the game'. REWARDS DEPRESS LEARNING RATES; children learn best when THEIR interests are engaged. Intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic control, lies at the very heart of human (and even animal) learning.

     This research accumulated in an avalanche in the 1970s, as the cognitive revolution destroyed the behavioristic 'control' model.

     Preschoolers were given felt-tip pens; some were promised rewards for producing drawings. Later, the drawings were evaluated by judges who did not know the origin of the work. The NON-REWARDED drawings were judged significantly more creative and detailed.

     Teresa Amabile worked with young creative writers. She asked them to write a passage of prose. Before beginning, one sub-group was merely asked to IMAGINE the rewards they could eventually earn from publishing their creative writing. Later, independent judges graded the output. Young, creative writers who merely THOUGHT ABOUT greed and gain, about the 'rewards' they might someday earn, produced work consistently judged to be inferior to that produced by writers who were focused upon their own INTRINSIC motives for writing. Just THINKING about reward hurts learning and creativity.

     Mark Lepper tested grammar school children on how creatively and imaginatively they formed hypotheses while playing a board game (Clue). Those promised a toy for doing well did consistently worse. A week later, the children were brought back into the experimental situation, and asked to perform another task, this time with no reward involved for either group. The previously 'rewarded' group AGAIN did significantly worse than the previously 'non-rewarded' group, even though now both groups were being treated the same. The depressing effect of tokens and rewards spreads like a cancer, infecting even later, non-rewarded work performed in the same setting. (And 'reward' mentality has spread through our whole society, corrupting our modal personality, turning Americans into depressed, lethargic, unhappy people with depressed ability to enjoy creative living and natural pleasure. 'Reward' CREATES 'addiction').

     Rewards and tokens 'work', of course. They work as CONTROLS. 'Reward' always involves power; the controlling person is able to create a condition of 'deprivation' or 'motivation'. (In a typical Skinner box experiment with a rat, for example, the animal would be maintained at 15 % or so below free-feeding weight). With children, the experimenter controls access to toys, to candy, or some such. With adults, the control is often over money, but sometimes it is merely praise that is 'rationed'.

     The subjects - even animal subjects! - are aware that they are being bent to the will of an external agent. Whether the tool used to do the bending is a rationed reward, or a whip, the experience of being manipulated, judged, controlled introduces negative affect and anxiety. It INTERFERES with learning, and depresses the learning curve that is witnessed when INTRINSIC motivation is involved. People do not enjoy being treated like machines. Not even lab rats, it turns out, enjoy being treated like machines. We CAN be controlled by these machine-like methods, which work best when simple, repetitive tasks are involved. But we will perform LESS well, learn LESS well, and suffer greater anxiety and depression, than when no external reward or control is imposed, and we are free to learn because WE want to.

     This is not to say that people will not give up their personal pleasure to meet the wants and needs of others. They will, if they WANT to. If people are loved, they quickly begin to love back. Homo sapiens is a highly social species. It is normal to love, and to care for others. If people are loved and cared for, they themselves INTERNALIZE a desire to help, to care, to act altruistically. Caring for others then becomes an INTRINSIC motivation, leading to creative acts of caring.

     Rewards impede this process. Rewards teach greed and selfishness. Rewards focus attention on what "I" get for "me, me, me." Rewards depress learning and creativity. Rewards spread through society like a deadly pollutant, turning working people into a mere commodity - 'labor' - that can be bought and sold. People hate those who treat them like things, even when this treatment involves 'rewards'.

     When a society 'rewards' people for sexual activity, instead of having sexuality tied to intrinsic motives of love and connection, you get a society based on prostitution and pornography. When you tie mental health treatment to rewards and tokens, you create a treatment system that is pornographic in nature.

     Human beings need to be loved, valued, honored. They need to be treated with dignity and respect. Poor women - in EVERY country, not just in the United States - need to be offered real education and productive labor. They need to have their FULL share of the productive fruits of the world economy.

     Women who have been smashed down by the obscene American economy which CREATES poor people, have been demeaned, exploited, insulted. Like a rat who has been deprived of food, these women have been deprived and dignity and of sustenance. And then comes Fred. Like the Skinnerian who starves his rats, and then 'rewards' them with a food pellet in order to control them, Fred is part of a system which has deprived poor women of dignity, of honor, or income. Then he comes with his chit for the beauty parlor. That is supposed to make up for the omnipresent the poor suffer in the American empire.

     The whole, evil, ignorant charade is disgusting. And I will not cease to speak the truth. You may, of course, honor Fred's request to censor Addict-L, and allow only those opinions which help 'treatment professionals' in their pursuit of reward. And here is a final fact about reward. It is 'addictive', that is, habit forming. People trained to perform for rewards, tend to seek them out in their future activities. They cease being creative, cease doing things for 'the fun of it.' Students who seek grades tend not to do work that has no impact on their grades. Workers who work for money do not offer extra, unpaid labor to the task. And 'treatment professionals' who are greedy don't read the literature, if it does not PAY THEM to read it.

     The really 'sick' elements in the 'addiction' field are the TREATMENT PROFESSIONALS. I have some hope for persons who get labeled 'addicts', and even for AAs. These people have undergone crises, and may come out on the other side with a better understanding. But people like Fred I am tempted to just write off. He has been for so long 'rewarded' that his whole worldview revolves around control and payment. It is, as he himself said, "how the world works." That is untrue. THE world does not work that way. But FRED'S world does work that way. Fred is hopelessly 'addicted' to rewards. So is the United States. And 'reward addiction' appears to be a progressive, terminal disease.