4 Reasons We (Try To) Use Extrinsic Motivators

I just blogged about 5 reasons we should avoid extrinsic motivators such as punishments and rewards. If there is so much evidence against punishments and rewards, why are they used so widely in schools?

Here are 4 reasons I think we do it.

Reason 1 – They Are Widely Used:
Part of the answer may be precisely that, because they are used widely, we believe that they are fine to use. Often a practice is implemented because of its legitimacy rather than its proven effectiveness. This may be especially true since teachers are so challenged to find ways to reach underachieving students and extrinsic motivators are more widely implemented and accepted than some of the other approaches to motivating students described in this book.

Reason 2 – They Tend To Have a Temporary Effect:
A third reason we may rely on punishments and rewards is, as I mentioned in the previous post, that they do tend to have a temporary desired effect. Have you ever had an itch? Perhaps Poison Ivy, or your arm was in a cast and the skin dry underneath? Rewards are a lot like itches. What about when you scratch it. How does it feel for the first five second? Wonderful! And every moment after that, how does it feel? It hurts. Even when you leave it alone for a few minutes and then you go back to scratch it, it hurts. But what do we do? Continue to scratch it over and over, trying to get those really good five seconds back from the beginning. That’s rewards. We have a really good initial positive effect and then it shuts down learning (but we keep doing it, trying to get that initial response back).

Reason 3 – Education’s Long Relationship With Behaviorism:
Another reason we might be quick to use extrinsic motivation is because of the long history of behaviorism in education. Skinner’s behaviorism maintains that all learning is actually only behavior and that all behavior can be conditioned and shaped through attention just to the behavior, through the pattern of stimulus-response-reinforcement. Although Skinner’s behaviorism has strongly impacted the world of education, his minimization of the role of thought and the mind brought about fiery responses from other educators and learning theorists. Perkins (1992, p. 59) responds by saying, “by ignoring human thinking as an invalid ‘folk theory,’ behaviorism discouraged some people from interacting with students in ways that made plain the workings of the mind.”

Prior to the advent of behaviorism, it was accepted that thought and mental processes play a crucial role in determining human action. But behaviorism buried this belief, with its conception of humans as robots, or machines with input—output connections. However, behaviorism no longer plays a dominant role in psychology, clearly because we are not robots, machines, or hydraulic pumps. A broad array of mental processes, including information search and retrieval, attention, memory, categorization, judgment, and decision-making play essential roles in determining why students behave as they do. (Weiner 1984, p. 16)

Perhaps the central problem with behaviorism is that it is presented as a general (comprehensive?) learning theory, instead of as a well developed, but small, piece of the puzzle. It has explanatory power for certain aspects of learning (such as appropriate behavior or recall of simple, disassociated facts) but lacks it for others (intrinsic interests, creativity, higher order thinking, anything related to the inner workings of the mind). This said, don’t think of behaviorism as incompatible with the cognitive theories. The “anti-cognitive” dimension grows from how behaviorism is sometimes applied. The theory, instead, simply describes an aspect of learning complementary to cognitive theories. Even Lepper, et al. (1973) and Weiner (1984) admit that behaviorist approaches, such as token economy systems, are effective at maintaining appropriate behavior in the classroom, an important precursor to learning.

Reason 4 – We’re Not Aware There Are Productive and Counterproductive Motivators:
Perhaps the largest reason that punishments and rewards are misused in schools is that teachers are not fully aware that there are both productive and counterproductive extrinsic motivators and which work and which do not.

It is this idea of counterproductive extrinsic motivators that I will explore in my next post in this series.


Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “over-justification” hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 28, 129-137.

Perkins, D. (1992). Smart schools: Better thinking and learning for every child. NY, NY. The Free Press.

Weiner, B. (1984). Principles of a theory of student motivation and their application within an attributional framework. In R. Ames and C. Ames (Eds.), Research on motivation in education (Vol. 1): Student motivation (pp. 15-38). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.