2007-07-06 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

Intrinsic Vs. Extrinsic Rewards: The Newest Game In Town
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Commentary By Howard Schwach

You might not recognize the terms in the headline for this column, but you certainly deal with them each day of your life.

Why do you work? To earn a salary so that you and your family can live the life you want them to live. Salary is an extrinsic reward. It comes from outside you. It is something you are given for doing a necessary job.

Why do you read a certain book or watch a certain television show or movie? Unless you are a professional reviewer, nobody is paying you to read that book or watch that movie. You are doing it because you enjoy it, because it is somehow important to you. That is an intrinsic reward. It comes from within you.

Most people enjoy both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards during their lifetime.

Personally, I have the best of all possible worlds. I live to write and would probably do it for nothing, but I get paid for it. Both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in one package.

When I was young, everyday things that had to be done, like getting a library card, completing homework, going to the doctor, achieving passing grades in school, going to college, all of those were rewarded intrinsically - nobody was going to pay me to do those things, not even an allowance from my parents.

Today, however, Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinks that it's a good idea to bribe (oops, excuse me,) I mean "reward" people for "doing the right thing."

Suddenly, it pays to be poor. Bloomberg's school minions will identify thousands of kids whose families will then be paid (sometimes, the kid will be paid directly) for such things as getting a library card, taking tests, passing tests, going to school and going to the doctor's office for a check-up - all the things that middle class parents do for free and that they drum into their children as the things that people just have to do.

That's $50 for getting a library card (you don't actually have to read any books to get the money); $50 for attending school regularly (remember when your parents sent you to school with a bad cold); $100 for sending a kid to the dentist; $200 for taking a kid to the doctor for a physical exam and $150 a month for holding down a job.

The pilot program, which targets thousands of school kids and their parents in selected neighborhoods, will be funded with private money, but that spending will quickly go public when the program expands, as all public programs eventually seem to do.

I have a question for the mayor. Is a student successful in school because he has a library card, or does having a library card (and using it regularly) lead to success at school?

The program has its supporters, not all of them in the mayor's entourage or in the Department of Education (whose officials hang on every word the mayor utters). The man in charge of the program is Professor Roland G. Fryer, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, who has been studying the gap between black and white educational attainment for years.

He says that he hopes to find ways to motivate failing minority students and that this pilot program is perhaps one way to do it.

He says that he doesn't yet have the answer, but he does know that the old way is not working.

"I don't know what [the answer] is," he told a New York Times reporter recently. "I do know that it can't be what happened when I was in schools, you know, people come in and say 'Go to school and you'll get a good job.'"

"Words like that were not enough," he said, "because this dream that we are all talking about is less tangible to people who have not actually seen someone making the dream real."

I have to wonder, then, how Fryer, who grew up moving between an alcoholic father and a grandmother who made beds for a living, ever had the intrinsic motivation to go to college and become a professor in the first place.

The question is, if it worked for him, why pay others to do the same thing?

When I taught special education at the dawn of the Emotionally Handicapped program, we were supposed to use a "behavior modification" program that gave points for proper behavior and educational attainment. Those points led to such small rewards as extra time to play and new books.

It worked for a short time, but then the kids began to demand larger gifts - television sets and Nintendo games.

That's what this will lead to, as well. People will get tired of their rewards and demand larger rewards or rewards for doing more of the things they should have been doing in the first place.

Then, when you stop paying them, they will stop doing those things that they were doing only because they were being paid to do them.

Talk about a slippery slope!

Families in the program can earn up to $5,000 a year in bribes (oops, I mean rewards).

One last question. What happens to the poor people in other neighborhoods than the targeted zones that have to do all of these mundane things without getting paid for it?

Those participating in the program will be measured against a control group of low-income kids and families who don't get the monetary awards. Two years from now, if there are no riots over the payments by that time, researchers working under Fryer should be able to tell whether the incentives encouraged the poor people to change their entrenched, destructive behavior.

One pundit writing about the program says that he fears all sorts of fraud and chaos in administering the program. He is probably right about that.

There was a political cartoon in the New York Daily News that told the story.

A mother was sitting next to her daughter's bed, reading her a bedtime story. The kid has a report card in her hand noting that she got an A+ in school. "Put it under your pillow, and the grade fairy will leave you money," the mother says as the door opens and a fairy, looking exactly like Mayor Bloomberg, holding a magic wand with a dollar sign on it, comes through the door to the bedroom.

Bloomberg is no fairy godmother, however, and waving a wand is not going to change the way people act or think.

History has shown over and over again that the war to win people's hearts and minds is generally a losing game.

Bloomberg's plan to give money to poor people as an incentive to change deeply-rooted behavior is just that -- a fairy tale that will ultimately cost the taxpayers million of dollars with little to show for the cost.

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