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Description: You may have heard someone somewhere bemoaning their observation that some people treat their pets like they are human beings (sneaking them into restaurants etc.) But, have you heard anyone bemoan the opposite – treating humans like pets (and I am NOT thinking here of consensual dog collar wearing OR examples of abuse). Here is some context to help you consider the above issue. When I lecture about operant conditioning, as part of a typical section on learning theory in intro-Psych, I usually begin by saying that if anyone in the class has or does in the future taken a dog to puppy or dog obedience classes they will hear/ have heard the instructor tell them that they are about to learn the basic principles of operant conditioning. Training a dog IS all about managing rewards, consistencies of reinforcement and limited use of punishment. At the end of that section of the course I also typically point out that the same learning principles work fairly well in shaping the behavior of small children but not so well with older children, youth and adults and then I leave it there. However, we (society, people in general etc.) do not seem to leave it there. From parenting to managing teenagers to corporate management practices there is A LOT said about the importance of the proper use of incentives or rewards. So, ARE rewards the optimal way to shape up and manage human behavior? Really…… think about it and then read the article linked below to see what systematic Psychological science has had to say about this question.

Source: Science Confirms it People Are Not Pets, Alfie Kohn, Opinion, The New York Times.

Date: October 27, 2018

Photo Credit: Zeloot, The New York Times

Article Link:

Did the research results discussed in the article, that rewards effectively kill interest and excellence in assigned tasks, surprise you?  Children paid to play with magic markers stop doing so when the pay stops while those playing with them ‘for fun’ play with them more over time. Paying kids for good grades seems to backfire too as do many work bonus payment (reward) schemes. There is some important stuff to know about just how to reward or whether to reward at all. Actually changing people’s behavior or otherwise creating an ongoing commitment to action is not simple or easy and providing rewards are simple, short term solutions that are NOT effective in the longer term. What this suggests is that parents, teachers, managers, and we ourselves need to find different starting places and different practices if we want to have long term impacts on the positive behaviours of others and ourselves. More research IS needed.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why do rewards not seem to work, long-term, in changing or shaping people’s behaviour?
  2. Where do the similarities and utilities of using operant conditioning for shaping a dog’s behaviour and that of child end and why?
  3. What does this article suggest about how we should approach questions of effective management practices in Industrial/ Organizational Psychology?

References (Read Further):

Chao, M. M., Dehejia, R. H., Mukhopadhyay, A., & Visaria, S. (2015). Unintended Negative Consequences of Rewards for Student Attendance: Results from a Field Experiment in Indian Classrooms.

Berns, Gregory (2008) In hard times, fear can impair decision-making. Preoccupations, The New York Times.

Pittman, T. S., Tykocinski, O. E., Sandman‐Keinan, R., & Matthews, P. A. (2008). When bonuses backfire: An inaction inertia analysis of procrastination induced by a missed opportunity. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 21(2), 139-150.

Ramirez, A. (2001). How Merit Pay Undermines Education. Educational Leadership, 58(5), 16-20.

Brewer, T. J., Myers, P. S., & Zhang, M. (2015). Islands Unto Themselves: How Merit Pay Schemes May Undermine Positive Teacher Collaboration. Critical Questions in Education, 6(2), 45-54.

Robertson, L. S. (1984). Insurance incentives and seat belt use. American journal of public health, 74(10), 1157-1158.