Rewards vs. Cognitive Skills

In the Dan Pink video that I posted about a week ago, he said something that interested me: he said that rewards motivate mechanical skills, or skills that do not require much brain power or reasoning. Rewards actually hinder cognitive skills and make it harder to reason through a problem.

One of the things I love about kids is their ability to reason. You wouldn’t think that a two-year-old has the ability to reason very well, but they do. They don’t understand general, abstract statements, but they do understand that we perform an action for a specific reason. We clean up our toys so that we don’t trip on them and fall. We walk when we are inside so that we don’t trip and fall. We don’t jump on the bed because we might fall off and bump our heads!

If we can assign purpose to our actions, we become much better at assigning goals to ourselves. Our brains become better at reasoning through the steps that we need to take to reach a desired end because we have trained it to think that way. In contrast, doing something for a reward does not train our mind to look at the bigger picture or the higher goal. We can’t even reason through the steps we need to take to reach that reward, much less the goal, because we are so intently focused on the reward. It is almost like tunnel vision. The process of learning how to reason through steps or creating a goal is a practiced skill, though. We have to practice using the reasoning part of our mind in order for it to work well.

Learning cognitive skills is vital for a child of any age, but especially so for young children who are just learning about how the world works. If we simply tell them that we don’t want them to behave in a certain way and bribe them with rewards, then they don’t truly understand why we are asking them to behave a certain way. Understanding leads to a change in behavior, but at the same time it is important to remember that it takes 21-30 days to create a new habit. That means that it may take 21-30 days of a teacher explaining over and over the reasoning behind a certain action before the child makes a habit of behaving in the desired way. Even with the added benefit of an explanation that fuels the reasoning skills, the child may not stop behaving in the undesired way right away. It takes time and a lot of patience on the part of the teacher to actually teach children the correct social way to behave, and do it in a way that stimulates the cognitive skills of the child.

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