The Pressure of Rewards

A couple of years ago I was filling in for our middle school art teacher one day. My last class of the day was a group of frenzied and squealy sixth-graders, their anticipation of the closing bell causing them to resemble a New Year’s Eve countdown party. One boy got my attention because of his shoes. His shoestrings flapped up and down like the trailing tails on a kite. I was surprised his shoes could actually stay on his feet.

I said to him, “Tie your shoes!”

“Why?” he responded. “They’re just going to come untied again!”

Telling the kid, whose hair hadn’t met up with a comb for a few days, that it was why he had shoestrings, was met with eyes glazed-over by the punishment of having to be in school for the last six hours of his life. I was unrelenting in my expectation and he finally kneeled down and tied the strings as loose as they could possibly be.

I remember that encounter vividly and have thought of it often in recent times as I’ve seen a shift as a part of our cultural philosophy. It is signified by the idea that offering a reward will change a person’s actions and decisions. It’s an idea that has been around in various ways for quite some time, but has now been recreated as a way to influence the hard-to-convinced and slow-to-come-around. I remember schools would use this technique in getting students to show up for the “official count day”, the day in October when their state funding was dependent on how many students were in the building to be educated that morning. There would be ice cream, pizza for lunch, balloons, trinkets, games, throwing pies at the principal, and any other creative activity that could entice Johnny and Janey to show up. Coming because education is important for their future success was not even in the ballpark.

Whatever your thinking is about vaccinations, it seems that the same philosophical roots have been seeded into the pressure for people to be vaccinated. From May until July, Colorado was drawing a weekly winner of a million dollars of those who were getting vaccinated. National polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one-third of those who hadn’t been vaccinated would be more likely to be vaccinated if they were entered into a lottery with the chance to win a million dollars. Colorado’s officials had the mindset that dangling the possibility of becoming a millionaire would alter people’s decisions. It did not apply to those who had been the early adopters, receiving the vaccine shots back in the first few months of 2021. It only applied to those who had been hesitant, suspicious, and unconvinced. Like the long lines of people waiting to buy lottery tickets when the jackpot was around 700 million, the state thought being rewarded for being slow to come around would work. The findings were mixed as to whether it did, but the philosophy behind it was evident.

This week there was a story coming out of San Francisco, and being okayed by the California state government, of a program that rewards addicts with money, usually given in gift cards, for each week they stay clean. It’s seen as an incentive to get people clean and back on the right track.

I’ve got mixed feelings about both of the states’ initiatives. I’m just a little uneasy for trying to get people to change their minds or getting unconcerned folk to be concerned by rewarding them.

Back to the middle school culture for an analogy, when I give an assignment to a student and tell him the due date is two days from then but he doesn’t turn it in, I cringe at the thought of rewarding him if he turns the assignment in late.

I covered that sixth-grade boy’s health class a few weeks after I had him in class the first time. He came in with shoe strings flopping once again and the laces only going through one eyelet on each side of each shoe. The shoe tongues looked like they were trying to make a break for it. I told him to tie his shoes again and he offered the same resistance as he had before. The class was going outside for the period, so I told him he wouldn’t be going out until he had tied the laces. He was still fussing about my demand, when a classmate stepped up and said, “I’ll do it.” He knelt down at the boy’s feet and tied the kid’s shoes.

I’m a bit uneasy when our mindset becomes “If you stand close to me, I’ll not only tie your shoes for you, I’ll give you a new pair to slip on.”

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One Comment on “The Pressure of Rewards”

  1. phydi3kids Says:

    always appreciate your thoughts and writing. Thanks


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