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The Big Answer


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Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes

a book by Alfie Kohn

(our site's book review)

Kohn very competently shows that manipulating people with external incentives actually kills their interest in what they are doing and lowers the quality of their work, and he even logically connects this to the decline in workplace performance as well as classroom performance. Then he supports this startlingly insightful thesis with research proving he knows what he is talking about.

He says the metaphor underlying all this is "do this and you'll get that." As most of us know, this is about half of everything behavioristic theory has to teach us about discipline and parenting and teaching, if you assume the "get" is a reward. If you infer a broader meaning and the "get that" can also be a punishment, then this metaphor covers everything you'll ever need to know about the discipline and parenting and teaching ideas in behaviorism in six simple words.

Kohn shows that we are making a grievious error in the basic strategy we use for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers. It demotivates and undermines performance. It makes schools much less than they could be and it warps parenting until it undermines autonomy in children.

John B. Watson
John B. Watson

B. F. Skinner, the father of radical behaviorism (which dealt with and manipulated not just observable events but also cognition and emotions), is one of the famous names associated with behaviorism and so are John B. Watson (methodological behaviorism: manipulate observable events only) and Edward Thorndike (methodological behaviorism: manipulate observable events only) and Ivan Pavlov (classical conditioning). Everything from speech to emotional responses were simply patterns of stimulus and response, according to Watson, who denied completely the existence of the mind or consciousness. Pavlov (1902) showed how classical conditioning can be used to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell by associating the bell with food.

Think of reinforcement to strengthen behavior, the "do this and you'll get that," as operant conditioning, Skinner's main contribution to psychology. Skinner considered free will an illusion and he considered human action to be dependent on consequences of previous actions, which Kohn takes issue with—as do we. Anyone can see it's a cause and effect universe, but Skinner raised this obvious truth to the level of a religion. Beyond Freedom and Dignity is one of his many books, and in it Skinner argues against "autonomous man." According to that, Freud, Maslow, and millions of other psychologists, therapists, teachers, preachers, and parents teaching us how to promote autonomy in human beings were wasting their time!

Skinner Box with mouse
Skinner Box with mouse

Why would such a bright guy conjure up such ideas? Simply put, since psychoanalysis was a wing of psychology that was only pseudo-scientific—full of untestable theories and unprovable ideas, behaviorists decided to avoid theories requiring holistic reasoning and opted for purely reductionistic science to lend their psychological theories scientific validity and respect from scientists in other sciences. But respectability at what price? We get that frustration about being unscientific was a legitimate reason to avoid Freud's wags (wild-ass guesses), but to limit a science to pure reductionism is a slippery slope: Why not reduce a person down to a brain and then a brain down to a neuron—which is reductio ad absurdum, and if you cannot speak Latin, no worries, it's just what it sounds like!

Freud
Freud

If people are "nothing but" stimulus-response mechanisms then we can feel fine treating them as objects since there's no "subject"—another one of those pesky illusions. By the same token, monkeys are nothing but stupid beasts so it's fine to confine them alone to tiny cages and do painful experiments on them while they whimper and go psychotic. And if people are mechanisms, there are no moral implications connected to how one treats them. Like we say—reductionism is a slippery slope that leads down dark and ugly paths. Factoring out people's humanity leads to inhuman conclusions.

The path of knowledge is our only real choice if we are to survive—and knowledge and wisdom tell us that reductionism is a slippery slope that leads down dark and ugly paths
The path of knowledge is our only real choice if we are to survive—and knowledge and wisdom tell us that reductionism is a slippery slope that leads down dark and ugly paths

As many wise people have noted for decades, the ethical consequences of the superficialness of behaviorism are great. Man is stripped of his responsibility, freedom, and dignity, and is reduced to a purely biological being, to be shaped by those who are able to use the tools of behaviorism effectively. A behaviorist utopia would be—in truth—a dystopia, or, in blunt language: hell. Contrariwise, in-depth psychology such as Maslow's Being Psychology—a.k.a. Humanistic Psychology—holds that responsibility, freedom, and dignity, as well as mind and spirit, are not only not the delusions the behaviorists see them to be, but real and essential parts of being human.

A behaviorist utopia would be—in truth—a dystopia, or, in blunt language: hell
A behaviorist utopia would be—in truth—a dystopia, or, in blunt language: hell

The end result of holding behavioristic ethical perspectives leads to such vapid and insipid ideas as this from John B. Watson: children should be treated as young adults ("shake hands with them in the morning"), so mothers should be warned about the inevitable dangers of providing too much love and affection—instead, children should be treated with emotional detachment—"Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap" (possibly the worst advice in the history of parenting advice)! This advice was very popular and the book Watson wrote about it was highly acclaimed! That explains a lot about all the harsh discipline of that era and the attempt to prevent "spoiling" a.k.a. "overcoddling." Watson even advised that no caregivers should bond too closely with the kids they care for. This is the exact opposite of the advice from every childcare expert for the last half a century, since science has proven just how critical close bonding is to the thriving of babies and young children. See Helping Young Children Flourish and Attached at the Heart.

(John B. Watson's strict, religious mother subjected Watson to harsh religious training* and his alcoholic father abandoned the family when Watson was 13. Later, with a Ph.D., he bragged how he could control infants and turn them into anything he wanted as if they were rats in boxes. It's a good thing he didn't live in Germany or he'd have delighted in helping Hitler create a Master Race—proving just how surely behaviorist thinking leads to dystopia! It's easy to see how Watson seemed without compassion with regards to children given his abusive background. *"Harsh religious training" is code for child abuse, but don't take our word for it—see for yourself: Dare to Discipline.)

Feeling Good is a great book to empower the treating of depression as well as ridding oneself of negative thoughts and emotions resulting mostly from parenting errors
Feeling Good is a great book to empower the treating of depression as well as ridding oneself of negative thoughts and emotions resulting mostly from parenting errors

On the plus side, however, Skinner's radical behaviorism's inclusion of cognition and emotions in its conditioning targets has been extremely useful in therapy because by far the most useful spinoff of behaviorism for humans is cognitive behavioral therapy. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David D. Burns, is a gem that relies on Cognitive Therapy, a therapy which teaches us that by changing the way we think we can alter our moods, deal with emotional problems, and get rid of depression without the use of drugs. Studies have shown that treating depression this way is superior to most other approaches. This stuff works and is the fastest effective therapeutic technique known for many purposes. Self-talk is one of the useful self-help aspects of the cognitive branch of behaviorism.

Obedience is a good goal for dog training but people are not dogs
Obedience is a good goal for dog training but people are not dogs

This cognitive stuff, then, is the best use of behaviorism on humans. Behavioristic experiments on animals was proven to be a roaring scientific success back in Skinner's day, which few people debate—although it led to abuse of laboratory animals in some cases, which we find unconscionable. But rewards and punishments to condition kids into obedience is flawed on every level—and this type of applied behaviorism led to abuse in some cases as well.

Flaw number one: In the first place, obedience is not a good parenting goal. It's a good goal for dog training but people are not dogs. Skinner worked out his conditioning theories in conditioning boxes called Skinner boxes. He used rats and mice—other things humans are not.

Flaw number two: The second reason using rewards and punishments to condition kids is flawed on every level is that treating kids as objects to manipulate is demeaning and insulting. They are people, and can better be related to on a more human level. By doing this, intrinsic motivation will evolve, meaning the person can choose to behave in a cooperative and respectful manner as well as learn things because he really desires to. This is a fundamental difference with generating extrinsic motivations in kids in which they act obedient to get rewards and avoid punishments. Kohn bemoans the fact that most parents and schools are constantly generating and reinforcing extrinsic motivations in kids, so if any intrinsic motivations evolve in such a situation, it will be in spite of how they're treated, not because of it! In essense, then, most houses and schools in this country are giant-sized Skinner boxes!

Skinner Box—do our kids really belong in there with the mouse?
Skinner Box—do our kids really belong in there with the mouse?

There were, and are, three different Forces in psychology: Abe Maslow, in his wonderful classic Toward a Psychology of Being, defined the Third Force in psychology. The first two Forces were psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Neither proved to be a good basis to build parenting methods from, although the proponents of each would disagree, of course.

The Third Force: Maslow's humanistic BEING psychology—the Third Force—was not interested in analyzing (psychoanalysis) or manipulating (behaviorism) people but rather in empowering them by showing them what is fundamental to human nature and psychological well-being, and what is needed to promote, maintain, and restore mental and emotional well-being, autonomy, and self-actualization.

All the parenting methods this website finds acceptable are democratic, authoritative methods, and all are compatible with Maslow's humanistic BEING psychology.

Fact accumulation is not understanding, and even less is it wisdom
Fact accumulation is not understanding, and even less is it wisdom

The main theory Kohn uses to empower the changing of behaviors is giving back control and choice. Give kids options and let them be able to make their own decisions about the choices facing them. Once we begin to do this, we will see more from our kids and on a less superficial level since it comes from intrinsic motivation. Kohn-inspired classrooms eliminate rewards as the basis for learning, and instead create classrooms where kids want to learn for the sake of knowledge itself. The teachers and students work together, often through cooperative learning groups, to obtain knowledge and understanding relevant and interesting to the students in their day-to-day lives. Compare this to the authoritarian, fact memorization days we all recall from our early schooling, where we couldn't wait to forget these sterile facts the second we'd passed a boring test about them, all the while hoping that someday people like Kohn would figure out a better learning method. Well, guess what—he did! See also Beyond Discipline.

Compare Kohn's methods to the authoritarian, fact memorization days we all recall from our early schooling, where we couldn't wait to forget these sterile facts the second we'd passed a boring test about them
Compare Kohn's methods to the authoritarian, fact memorization days we all recall from our early schooling, where we couldn't wait to forget these sterile facts the second we'd passed a boring test about them

Many people reviewing Kohn miss that it's not so much what kids do or don't do but "where it's coming from" that is vital. Doing something for acceptance or rewards is just being manipulated, while getting motivated by teachers and/or parents inspiring and encouraging and informing and empowering gets a more real, human result that encourages conscious choices, not becoming a well-conditioned, dependent yes man out for superficial approval on Facebook.