Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and other Bribes

Many of us know Alfie Kohn for his courage and coherence on of the dangers of standardized testing. Kohn’s message in Punished by Rewards is perhaps even more important for educators and parents.

In Punished by Rewards, Kohn painstakingly demonstrates the ways that behaviorist theory has seeped unawares into our everyday actions. We take it for granted that praise and other external incentives help kids. Kohn argues, citing persuasive research, that when we reward kids, we actually hamper their performance. Study after study shows that people-children and adults-who are praised and rewarded for their work do less well and demonstrate less perseverance than people who are not offered rewards. The problem is not in the prizes themselves but in the way the reward turns one’s attention outward, focusing motivation on the reward and the evaluator rather than on the intrinsic joy or value of the task.

If you’ve had suspicions about praise and incentives-and if you’re willing to be a bit shaken up-read this book. It has helped me think more deeply about what it means to teach, to support, to guide, to coach. And because, like Kohn, I want to change the world, I’m tempted to keep a pile of the books in my backpack and hand them out in every playground and classroom where I hear parents and teachers reciting our well-intentioned mantras, “Good job!” “Good throw!” “Beautiful picture!” “Excellent essay!” Kohn’s work has the potential to help us all do much better by our kids.

reviewed by Kathy Simon,
Director of Research at CES National and author of
Moral Questions in the Classroom, Yale University Press, 2001.