Cognitive Daily

Does rewarding altruism squelch it?

ResearchBlogging.orgImagine your neighbor has a dog that regularly escapes her yard. One day you see the dog escape and return it to her. She thanks you by giving you a piece of delicious home-made apple pie. This happens several days in a row. Then one day when you return the dog, there’s no pie, no thanks, and no explanation. Would you return the dog the next time it escapes?

You might be disinclined. But what if there had never been any reward? Wouldn’t returning her dog be the right thing to do?

Children as young as 14 months old will spontaneously help others for no reward. But a 1973 study of 3- to 5-year-olds found that although these kids would spontaneously draw pictures, if they were given a reward for drawing pictures, then later they wouldn’t make any drawings unless a reward was offered. Could offering a reward actually suppress the natural inclination to do good things?

Felix Warneken and Michael Thomasello placed 48 German toddlers averaging 20 months of age in a room (one at a time) with a parent and an experimenter who sat at a table in the corner, apparently doing an unrelated task like placing balls in a basket or clipping napkins together. The experimenter pretended to accidentally drop one of the objects on the floor, and reached for it while looking at the toddler, waiting up to 30 seconds for the toddler to help her by picking it up. Eight of the children refused to leave their parent, and ten didn’t complete the task, but 36 became reliable helpers, returning the object to the experimenter 5 times.

Of the 36, each time they helped out, 12 were given no reward or praise, 12 were thanked verbally, and 12 were rewarded with a cube they could use to activate a fun toy:

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(Click on the image to see a very cute video of a toddler getting a reward)

Next, the children were tested to see if they would continue to help the experimenter without a reward. Since the 36 toddlers were very reliable helpers, the task was made a little more challenging. Before the experimenter dropped her object, the toddler was presented with an exciting new toy. He would have to leave this toy in order to help out — and no reward was given. This was repeated 9 times. Here’s a typical response from a toddler who received no reward previously:

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(Again, click for video)

In fact, nearly all of them were willing to help even when they had a new exciting toy to play with.

But the response from toddlers who had been rewarded previously was different:

i-580d113837a8426e298b37686eb7b87d-warneken3.jpg
(Click for video)

When no rewards were offered, these children helped out only about 50 percent of the time. This graph displays the complete results of the study:

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Children who had previously received rewards helped the experimenter significantly less often than either the group that received only praise or the group that received no praise.

Warneken and Tomasello conclude that rewarding children for altruistic behavior causes them to be less likely to be altruistic in the future, and these results certainly seem to be dramatic evidence of that conclusion. I’d only make one point in the toddlers’ favor: They had learned to play a game where both they and the experimenter had clear roles. The child helped out, and the experimenter gave him a prize. But halfway through the game, for these kids, the rules changed, and suddenly the experimenter wasn’t living up to her part of the bargain. Was it the reward, or the betrayal that caused the child’s behavior to change?

Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month-olds. Developmental Psychology, 44 (6), 1785-1788 DOI: 10.1037/a0013860

Comments

  1. #1 Kierra
    September 22, 2009

    It begs the question if the results would have been different if a different experimenter was used for second (no-rewards) part of the test. Someone who was not part of the original “pick up object = get reward” game.

  2. #2 Adam
    September 22, 2009

    This reminds me of a similar experiment where kids who were making art started to be rewarded for producing their art. As long as they were rewarded, their behavior increased. Once the rewards stopped, they ended up making art even less than before.

    Essentially it means that intrinsic reward systems can be turned off by extrinsic reward systems.

  3. #3 Wolfpax
    September 22, 2009

    Great – so much for all the praising I did of my kids when they performed altruistic behaviors! Another example of amateur psychology blowing up in my face…

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    September 22, 2009

    Wolfpax:

    Actually “praising” was pretty much the same as offering no response. It’s actively rewarding altruism that seems to lead to detrimental results. And as Kierra points out, the rewards may not affect altruistic behavior under different circumstances.

  5. #5 Adam
    September 22, 2009

    On a personal note, I’m a fan of explaining to my kids how seemingly altruistic behavior is often in their long-term interest. If they do nice things to another person, they’ll be seen as kind and others will want to do favors for them back. Short-term losses can translate into long-term gains.

  6. #6 Jay
    September 22, 2009

    Is there an unintended extra “less” in, “rewarding children for altruistic behavior causes them to be less likely to be less altruistic in the future”?

    This must by why clicker trainers always talk about the importance of intermittent reinforcement to get consistent behavior.

  7. #7 CRM-114
    September 22, 2009

    I suspect you are right. The kid will punish the cheater.

    I’ve played with cats and dogs and have watched other people playing with the same. It does seem to me that if the human suddenly cheats, the animal feels wronged. By playing fair with the animal, I would get them to play until they overheated. (Have you ever seen a cat panting in December?) After cooling off and a long nap, they would jump at the first invitation to play. Puppies and kitties taught me the art of playing fair.

  8. #8 frog
    September 22, 2009

    Hasn’t this been common knowledge in business schools for 30 years? That by micro-rewarding employees, tying rewards very closely to performance, you actually get worse performance.

    Which explains the last 30 years — besides showing that MBA students don’t pay attention in school.

  9. #9 Bael
    September 22, 2009

    This is very common knowledge for video game developers. It’s not the big reward that people come back for. It’s the consistent trickle of rewards that give people a sense of accomplishment.

  10. #10 Anon
    September 22, 2009

    A quick glance at the paper indicates that the authors are unfamiliar with basic behavior analysis. What they have done is to put the kids’ behavior under stimulus control, and then extinguished it. In Pryor’s “Don’t shoot the dog”, she recommends this procedure for dogs that bark inappropriately: teach the dog to bark on command, then don’t give that command except when you want the dog to bark.

    I note that the references to this paper include Deci, naturally, and of developmental, educational and social psychology, but no behaviorists–the people who make a career out of studying motivation. I suggest Judy Cameron as a start; a couple of sources–Her book (with W. David Pierce) “Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Resolving the controversy” (preview here: http://books.google.com/books?id=2fURT3MHRq8C&pg=PA12&lpg=PA12&dq=Judy+Cameron+%22the+detrimental+effects+of+reward+hypothesis%22&source=bl&ots=E7JJgGjYkh&sig=T5Otqc2wZGvOW5nJ-KYMbop6dBg&hl=en&ei=O3K5StqVK9Gi8AbZ8r2eDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false ) or her chapter in Heron et al.’s collection “Focus on Behavior Analysis in Education (hers is chapter 18, “The Detrimental Effects of Reward Hypothesis: Persistence of a View in the Face of Disconfirming Evidence”)

    There are other sources, of course–Cameron presents a bunch that I had read, and more that I had not.

    The present paper you write of seems to be a classic example of someone looking at a problem through the wrong glasses.

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    September 23, 2009

    Is there an unintended extra “less” in, “rewarding children for altruistic behavior causes them to be less likely to be less altruistic in the future”?

    Oops! Yes, there was. I fixed it.

  12. #12 nick gogerty
    September 23, 2009

    by its nature alturism is an intrinsic motivation. Using an extrinsic reward changes that dynamic and it isn’t alturism anymore by definition.

  13. #13 Lilian Nattel
    September 23, 2009

    I think your question at the end is an important one. I wrestle with this issue in raising my children (now ages 8 and 11). One of my children is by her nature organized, tidy and also diligent at doing chores…if she gets allowance for that. My other child is spontaneously helpful and almost always willing to fetch for anyone, but detests tidying and is indifferent to chores. Does that mean she misses out on a reward (allowance) because her nature is to be more helpful and less punctilious? That doesn’t seem fair.

  14. #14 Ian Kemmish
    September 23, 2009

    To answer the initial question, I think that by the third day, pie or no pie, I’d be smiling sweetly and suggesting that the neighbour mended her fence before the dog got run over. The key is surely a) whether the altruist perceives that they’re being taken for granted (for me that’s when the neighbour takes no action, for the toddlers it’s when they get less than the expected reward), and b) whether it matters to him (on flag or poppy day appeals, there are people like me who will buy a poppy but refuse to wear it).

  15. #15 Tony Jeremiah
    September 24, 2009

    But a 1973 study of 3- to 5-year-olds found that although these kids would spontaneously draw pictures, if they were given a reward for drawing pictures, then later they wouldn’t make any drawings unless a reward was offered.

    Sounds like Lepper, Greene and Nisbett’s (1973) foundational study of the overjustification effect.

    Children as young as 14 months old will spontaneously help others for no reward…Could offering a reward actually suppress the natural inclination to do good things?

    So it looks like the present study examined whether the overjustification effect applies to altruistic behavior and it seems that it does. There’s another study (Staub, 1971) that showed that children’s natural inclination to help increased from 5-7 years (i.e., kindergarten-grade 2), but decreased from 7-11 years (i.e., grade 2-6). This was attributed to social learning (e.g., they learn to mind their own business).

    Was it the reward, or the betrayal that caused the child’s behavior to change?

    My guess is ~25% of the children in the reward condition (using 75% in the no reward/praise condition as a baseline level of helping) learned to focus their attention on the reward rather than on their initial inclination to help. Also, rather than assuming a straightforward overjustification effect, something about the description of the experimental procedure (i.e., ‘…Before the experimenter dropped her object, the toddler was presented with an exciting new toy…’) and the age of the infants, seems to suggest the possibility that ~25% of the children in the reward condition were simply distracted by the shiny toy (ADD?) and simply forgot to help.

    A study that might link the work of Staub (1971) and Lepper et al. (1973; related to the question about betrayal–which seems to require very mature social-cognitive thought processes on the part of 20-month-olds), would be a Bobo Doll-like version of this experiment.

    In particular, I wonder if there would be a difference in the helping behavior of 20-month-olds who first watch other 20-month-olds getting rewarded for helping vs. those who watch them not getting rewarded for helping, and both are subsequently placed in a similar situation where no rewards are provided for helping.

  16. #16 Gillian
    September 27, 2009

    I think this would likely apply to older children and adults.

    Perhaps, the babies who were not given praise demonstrated personality theorist Gordon Allport’s “functional autonomy”. They engage in altruism because they want to. The activity itself is reinforcing. The motivation had become internal.

    On the other hand, the ones given reinforcement (praise and reward), learned to expect that they would be given something in return for the behavior the had previously exerted. I think that would be called the “Crespi effect” (if I remember right).

    This is a very interesting study!

  17. #17 Mark Tyrrell
    September 29, 2009

    I once worked raising charity on the phone and it would amaze me when prospective charity supporters would ask: “What do I get for my money?” The concept of charity and commerce having got tangled.

    In the UK, the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) pays young people up to £30 a week just for attending classes. Not for passing exams. Not for learning. Just for turning up.

    Many teachers have reported more disruption in classes, as a number of recipients of the EMA seem to believe it’s enough just to be there, and don’t appear to feel under any obligation to learn anything while they are there. Some even feel quite justified in trying to claim their ‘entitlement’ even when they don’t turn up. I kid you not.

    I think there are very real dangers in rewarding people for what they should be doing anyway.

  18. #18 Marcia Dream
    September 29, 2009

    Is it possible that by introducing a reward, you introduce the idea that the activity is not pleasurable, but difficult?

    For example, I am typing this blog comment out of my altruistic desire to share my knowledge with other readers of Cognitive Daily.

    If you pay me for typing this comment, then I am being compensated for having to think of something to post, to type it, to check that the spelling and grammar are correct, for the fact that my fingers and wrists get tired from typing — you know what, for the measly amount I’m being paid, it’s not worth it.

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