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Motivation Overload?

First we learn that Baby Einstein may be doing more harm than good. Now we learn that an excess of rewards may be having the opposite effect of what we expect.

Last year Amy put her PhD in neuroscience to good use when she wrote the article debunking Baby Einstein. I, too, aired my thoughts in an article titled buy now, pay forever: the business of tech toys. Today, a blog from open source community member Stormy Peters teaches that we may have it all wrong when it comes to rewards and motivation.

Adlerian psychology teaches that every human being has the goal of belonging, of making a place in his or her world. Discouraged children, who find themselves unable to accomplish this goal on the socially useful side of life through cooperation and contribution, may develop mistaken goals in their struggle to belong. But what is it that encourages or discourages a child? One theory is that praise, which represents a form of judgement, orders the child within an external locus of power, making them helpless or powerless when praise is witheld, whereas responses or natural consequences that relate to a self-centered view—doing things for their own sake— help the child develop an authentic and independent sense of self. What does this have to do with technology?

As I reported in our own family's on-going XO Laptop experiment, the rewards of learning can be both immediate and self-evident, if only the game is not too deeply buried under layers of flashy but meaningless praise. We are struggling against a consumeristic tide that bombards our daughter with unrealistic promises of happiness and prestige/social status, but we are also winning a few battles here and there as the intrinsic rewards of authentic accomplishment push aside the TV clutter for another day.

If the Adlerian hypothesis is correct, that children really want is to belong and to be significant, then how do external rewards help or hurt the child as they grow into adulthood? A dependence on external rewards for a sense of self leads to a profound feeling of emptiness, which is chronicled in the excellent book The Price Of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. So without telling anybody how to be a better parent, let me just suggest that you look at social software and tech gadgets from a new perspective: what is the reward and who defines it? The more external and the more arbitrary the reward, the more the reward may diminish (to the point of extinction) intrinsic motivation. Conversely, the more ways a child can find some intrinsic reward in the activity (even if it's the reward of decorating rather than programming a laptop), the more the child builds an intrinsic sense of belonging and significance.

Happy Valentine's Day!