• Amy Morgan Linde

How Bad Are Bribes Anyway?

“I’m nah nunu noo ih” said the sweetest-faced sweetie pie three year old you can imagine. Standing in the therapy room next to his little toddler sized chair, hands on hips, pouty faced, he was there for his first session to work on his nasal substitution pattern (“I’m nah nunu noo ih” translates to “I’m not gonna do it”). For speech-language pathologists, educators, and parents alike, getting kids to do things they don’t want to do is just a part of everyday life. And SLPs know, even the saltiest preschooler will soften with good rapport, a ton of fun, and positive reinforcement. In fact, without fun and positivity, it’s not only harder for kids to engage, but it’s also harder for them to learn because they’re not experiencing as much reinforcement in sessions to trigger those dopamine rushes.

Creating the atmosphere for learning is no easy task, especially at present time, while we’re juggling working, parenting, and home schooling in the face of a global pandemic. We strive to stay in control and a few steps ahead of our kids to avoid getting into power struggles. We redirect when things seem they could be turning south to put out fires before they grow.

But, there’s another type of behavior management strategy that is a little harder to feel proud of. External reinforcers, incentives, can range from activities—things like motivating games and breaks—to objects, like toys, sticker charts, treasures chests and prizes. These types of tangible, concrete positive reinforcements make sense to young kids, but, depending on the way they’re presented, can also walk the line between a motivating reinforcer and “bribery”. Even praise has been condemned by some as turning our kids into “praise junkies” who won’t develop their own internal moral code or self-sufficiency. And let’s not pretend that, even with the best proactive and preventative behavioral management strategies, we don’t occasionally find ourselves in the middle of a negotiation.

As someone who generally loves fun, saying nice things to children, and is a big fan of giving and receiving gifts, I’ve asked myself, as a parent and an SLP—how bad are bribes anyway?

The key tension here is the need to help kids develop an intrinsic motivation to do good, and work hard to do a good job with academics or speech work, and the potential for an extrinsic motivator like a reward or verbal praise to interrupt the natural development of that intrinsic motivation. Numerous research studies have shown that intrinsic motivation is linked to better performance. And, external rewards reduce intrinsic motivation. However, there is also a clear link between incentives and performance—you work, you get paid. Clearly, the truth is more complicated.

In a meta-analysis of 950 industrial and organizational psychology articles, Cerasoli, Nicklin, and Ford (2014) found a few key distinctions in understanding the relationship between incentives, motivation, and performance. First of all, there are differences in how directly tied an incentive is to an action. For incentives that were generally promised but not directly tied to a specific action, individuals’ motivation was actually found to increase. For example, if we’re paid a salary for our job, that’s not directly tied to a concrete set of tasks, we feel appreciated, supported, and we’re more likely to have increased intrinsic motivation to perform well. Conversely, incentives that are tied to very specific actions are likely to over-ride intrinsic motivation. So, a direct promise of a specific reward for a specific action tends to lead an individual to value the reward more than the action itself.

Secondly, the authors reported that there are differences in quantity of performance and quality of performance that seem to matter for how we might consider incentives and internal motivation. For tasks that are high quantity, repetitive, and not particularly complex, incentives lead to a considerable boost in performance. However, when a task is complex and the desired result has more to do with quality, the intrinsic motivation of the individual is critical to increasing the quality of result.

Thinking about these results as they relate to speech therapy, clearly we need to consider both of these scenarios in encouraging the task-specific, highly repetitive types of activities we may need to accomplish in, for example, a standard articulation therapy session. But, we also need to think about how to boost intrinsic motivation for encouraging children to take ownership of the therapy process, and prioritize not only rapidly completing tasks, but paying attention to the quality of their work.

How do we do this? Tying the type of incentive to the desired action may help. A non-direct, general incentive for participation, such as “you work you get paid” could be something like a homework chart that leads to a prize, a reward after a set (and predetermined) period of time for participation, and so forth. This type of general acknowledgement of the child’s hard work and willingness to reward them for their time could help to build a reciprocal appreciation for the therapy process that leads to increased self-motivation. That improved intrinsic motivation could in turn, lead to better quality of performance.

On the flip side, we can employ direct incentives for high quantity tasks. For example, if we need a child to participate in rote repetition of productions during articulation drill, having a token for a given number of trials can incentivize the child to accomplish these. However, we need to acknowledge that we may in fact be decreasing their internal motivation in these tasks. That’s why a general incentive for participation may be beneficial. We also can use our verbal praise to help increase internal motivation for these rote tasks that we provide direct tokens for.

Verbal praise is another kind of external motivator, and has also been the source of controversy among child behavior experts. In a summary article, Bayat (2011) points out that there are two types of verbal praise—praise directed at a person for their attributes and praise directed at processes. Person praise would include something like telling a child who did well on a test that he or she is really smart. Process praise is telling a child who did well on a test that you know they studied really hard. Person praise has been shown to have detrimental effects on kids, making them more likely to demonstrate fixed mindsets, and decreases their motivation. Praising their process, however, encourages them to keep trying, and suggests that they can improve their performance even more by altering their process, which leads to increased curiosity, motivation, and performance.

So, in the speech therapy framework, we need to be specific about what we’re praising kids for. Even during articulation drill, when we may be offering direct incentives to get a high volume of work completed, we can use our verbal praise to provide feedback about desirable parts of the process—feedback that can boost kids’ motivation.

Kids come to therapy because they struggle with some aspect of speech or language that they need help with. It’s human nature to not be super excited to do something that’s hard for you, and kids learn so quickly that the things they come to therapy for are hard. By creating an atmosphere of fun, of appreciation, and of celebrating the process of improvement, we can get kids to buy in to the program and start to think that, even if they’re still having a hard time with their /r/ sound, for example, speech therapy is something that they’re good at. And if they start to believe that, their motivation will increase. So, how bad are bribes anyway? In my mind, not that bad. External reinforcers are tools that adults can use to help kids learn and grow as individuals. We just need to make sure we’re using them in the most beneficial way for kids.

Bayat, M. (2011). Clarifying issues regarding the use of praise with young children. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 31(2), 121-128.

Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Ford, M. T. (2014, February 3). Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Incentives Jointly Predict Performance: A 40-Year Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0035661

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