External Rewards: Some Hidden Costs

external rewards

Providing an external reward for learning is so pervasive that most of us never even consider the potential downside. In an earlier post – “Internal Motivation: Present from Birth” –  I suggested that external rewards can actually interfere with learning. How can such a “common sense” practice as rewarding desirable behavior be so counterproductive?

Let’s start with the findings of noted researcher Teresa Amabile. In Growing Up Creative: Nurturing a Lifetime of Creativity Amabile states, “Extrinsic motivation inhibits intrinsic motivation.” In other words, if we want to promote intrinsic motivation, one of the least effective things to do is utilize external motivators. Furthermore, after reviewing two dozen studies that spanned twenty years, Amabile concludes that reward systems negatively impact the quality of work produced. So research repeatedly suggests that external rewards lead to lower quality and reduce intrinsic motivation.

What about creativity? Educators allegedly appreciate creativity in their students. Slogans like “Think outside the box” are all the rage. But in Creativity in Context Amabile says, “Controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.” Looks like extrinsic motivators also get in the way of something we want to promote: creativity. Suddenly external motivators aren’t looking quite so benign, are they?

And then there’s stress.  Eric Jensen, a respected writer in the field of brain-based learning has this to say in Brain-based Learning & Teaching: “We know from research that the use of rewards increases learner stress.”

So what do we get when we reward students for learning? We interfere with the development of intrinsic motivation. We stifle creativity. Students produce lower quality work. And to top it off, we increase stress.

Interestingly, whenever we learn something new our brains automatically release neurotransmitters that produce positive feelings.  This natural, internal reward system works wonderfully when we don’t contaminate it by introducing external rewards into the mix. Despite our positive intentions, external rewards for learning lead to a host of negatives and sabotage the brain’s natural reward system. The solution: minimize external rewards for learning and let the brain make learning its own reward.