Friday, October 9, 2009

Rewarding for expected behaviour

I caught a snippet of information on the radio just now that police in Auckland have offered over $800,000 in rewards in the past few years in an effort to solve some crimes, but have not paid out a cent. (Apparently this came from the Herald, but I haven’t been able to find a link.)

I usually despise the idea of rewards for such purposes. If someone has information that could help solve a crime, then it is up to the person to determine if it is in their moral duty to divulge this. And, without wanting to get into a deep and meaningful on morality, my view is that this duty to divulge exists if the liberty of others – personal or property - is at stake.

Unfortunately, the snippet of information didn’t get into the detail that I was interested in: why has not a cent has ever been paid out? Did the police solve all the crimes without anyone coming forward? I doubt it. If not, how many crimes that had rewards attached to them were solved, and how were they solved? Or can I cynically wonder if people came forward with information, but the police found a loophole to avoid paying out?

Rewarding for desired behaviour is nothing new, whether it be in a parenting capacity, training an animal, supervising staff (although the management one is dodgy territory that is perhaps better saved for another deep and meaningful blog), or rewarding for information.

A while ago, we had six sheep that frequently escaped from their paddock. I found a happy home for the three ringleaders, but that still left me with three sheep who now had a taste for freedom. One day, a neighbour witnessed an escape, and returned the sheep to us. I thanked him by giving him some chocolate brownies. Despite extensive fence improvements, this continued for three days in a row. Returning runaway sheep always resulted in a small plate of brownies. As soon as I could, I went to the farm shop and got some serious “real-farmers-use-these” fencing supplies, but while I was out, the sheep escaped again. Again, the neighbour returned them. But, because I was out buying proper fencing stuff, my husband was at home and, not knowing the procedure, no brownies were forthcoming, no alternative reward was provided, and no explanation was given. My husband was a little perturbed at the neighbour’s reluctance to leave despite the profuse thank you and sorry and reassurance that the fence would be mended that very day.

When I heard this, I wondered if the neighbour would return the sheep the next time they escaped. He might be disinclined to, but what if there had never been any reward? Would returning the sheep not be the right thing to do?

(Before anyone throttles me for chanting off research even though I ranted in a previous blog about how I hate people who do just this, I am justifying me doing so here because I am in no way stating that the research given below is conclusive. But I concede that I am using the research to my advantage to illustrate my point.)

Some clinical psychology studies (for references, see Warneken, F., and Tomasello, M. (2008) Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month-olds, Developmental Psychology, 44 (6), 1785-1788 DOI:10.1037/a0013860) assert that children as young as 14 months old will spontaneously help others for no reward. Conversely, a 1973 study of 3 to 5-year-olds (Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973)) claimed that these kids spontaneously drew pictures, however, if they were given a reward for drawing pictures they would not do any further drawings unless a reward was offered. Which begs the question all parents will now be asking, and one I am also asking in the context of the police unpaid rewards: does offering a reward actually suppress the natural inclination to do good things?

In the Warneken, F., and Tomasello, M. study referenced in the previous paragraph, 48 German toddlers (aside from the fact that all German toddlers are well behaved, I believe the results are still relevant) averaging 20 months of age were put in a room (one at a time) with a parent and an experimenter. The experimenter 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 drop one of the objects on the floor, and reach 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 (possibly immigrants?), and ten did not complete the task (ditto? Apologies, but I have never witnessed a disobedient German child), but 36 became reliable helpers, returning the object to the experimenter five 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.

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 nine times. Nearly all of them were willing to help even when they had a new exciting toy to play with.

However, the response from toddlers who had been rewarded previously was different. When no rewards were offered, these children helped only about 50 percent of the time:
Percentage of children helping with no praise = approximately 90%
Percentage of children helping with praise = approximately 80%
Percentage of children helping with reward = approximately 50%

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 concluded that rewarding children for altruistic behaviour causes them to be less likely to be altruistic in the future.

The study bothers me a bit, and I would make some points in the toddlers' favour.

1. They had learned to play a game where both they and the experimenter had clear roles. The child helped out, and the experimenter gave them a prize. However, halfway through the game, the rules changed for the kids, and suddenly the experimenter was not living up to her part of the bargain. Was it the reward, or the betrayal that caused the child's behaviour to change?

2. Would the results be different if a different experimenter was used for the second (no-rewards) part of the test? Someone who was not part of the original "pick up object = get reward" game?

Obviously, the ideal would be for children to feel that altruistic behaviour is a part of peaceful co-existence with others, and that they will learn that it is in their long-term interest. If they do nice things to another person, they will be seen as kind, and others may help them in return some day, but if they don't, that's no big deal and shouldn't be the motivator for helping someone.

Surely, the key is:
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; for the person with crime-solving information, it’s perhaps the fear of the process that follows); and

b) whether it matters to the individual (on poppy day appeals, there are people who will buy a poppy but refuse to wear it; for the person with crime-solving information, it’s determining whether they feel a moral duty to come forward).

I don’t expect my neighbour to run after my sheep. But at the time, I felt a plate of brownies politely conveyed and acknowledged the gratitude. I just overdid the rewards. I am guilty of overdoing rewards with my children too.

I am only speculating without knowing the full reasons behind why the police have not paid a cent of reward money out, but are people lured to reveal their crime-solving information if a reward is on offer? Or has the reward carrot been dangled too often without paying out, thereby diluting the effectiveness?

Is it possible that by introducing a reward, you introduce the idea that the activity is not pleasurable or expected, but difficult and burdened? For example, I am typing this blog out of my altruistic desire to share my vast knowledge with strange people who read blogs all day. If you pay me to type this blog, 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 eyes get tired... and I doubt you would ever pay me enough.

For the person with crime-solving information, will they come forward out of an altruistic desire to share their knowledge, or will they decide that it is all too hard to go through the system and any retribution that may follow, and let karma prevail?

Is it a poor message to reward people, whether they be adults or children, for what they should be doing anyway?


Lindsay said...

Are you sure the neighbour wasn't letting them out to claim the bounty?

bez said...

And everything was fine, until you found out that the neighbors were actually letting the sheep out in order to catch them again to get your brownies. (Cue to clinical research about the addictive effects of the welfare system).

Just joking.

Opinionated Mummy said...

Thanks, Lindsay and bez. Now *that* was a position that didn't occur to me when I ranted last night!!

homepaddock said...

Does that research mean that goodness can be its own reward until it gets contaminated by other more tangible rewards?

Like Linday and Bez I wonder if the neighbour's delight in your baking had something to do with the sheep escaping.