Book Review: Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

front cover of Punished by Rewards, book review at

This book makes me want to get on a soapbox and shout: read this!

I want us to take a look at how we use praise, rewards, power, control and coercion, even inadvertently, on a daily basis.

 I want us to have the courage to take steps to make changes that will truly help our children grow and learn.

I want it to be required reading for every parent, teacher, and boss.

Kohn challenges us to question a pervasive mode of operating that many of us have come to accept as normal:

“My premise here is that rewarding people for compliance is not  ‘the way the world works’  as many insist. It is not a fundamental law of human nature. It is but one way of thinking and organizing our experience and dealing with others.  It may seem natural to us, but it actually reflects a particular ideology that can be questioned. I think it is long past time that we do so…” 

Kohn examines the underlying beliefs of behaviorism and the spread of these ideas across institutions and through society.  He looks at the implication of the use of rewards in the workplace, in schools and in the home.
He questions the underlying beliefs about human nature. Do we believe that we are nothing but reactors to external stimuli? Are we only rats in a box, pressing on the lever to get just one more reward? Kohn questions Skinner’s assumptions and the many ways rewards and praise have been applied without thought to their long-term impact.

“Gradually it began to dawn on me that our society is caught in a whopping paradox. We complain loudly about such things the sagging productivity of our workplaces, the crisis of our school, and the warped values of our children. But the very strategy we use to solve these problems — dangling rewards like incentive plans and grades and candy bars in front of people — is partly responsible for the fix were in. We are a society of loyal Skinnerians unable to think our way outside of the box we had reinforced ourselves into.” 

Quick to admit that rewards, including praise, can result in immediate compliance, Kohn cites many studies that demonstrate these results come with a huge long-term cost.

Decades of studies have shown that rewards reduce intrinsic interest and pleasure in the rewarded activity and cause people to focus narrowly, which in turn reduces creativity, feelings of autonomy, sense of self-determination and productivity. Of course, how much and how well people do things will be influenced by their interest and motivation. Yet even with evidence of the destructive effects of rewards and praise, parents teachers and bosses continue to use incentives and grades.

How do we break out of the cycle of increasing rewards and decreasing motivation?

Punished by Rewards pushes us to look behind what we do with our children and to as questions such as:

  • Is it for their own good, or for our convenience?
  •  Is what we are asking them to do necessary to help them grow and learn, or is it just  controlling?
  •  Do we just want compliance and obedience in the moment, or are we committed to a process that will have the kind of long term results for increasing motivation, autonomy and purpose?
  •  Are our habits and actions creating people who are internally motivated and not limited by or addicted to external rewards?

Many of us have been raised with this carrot-stick philosophy at home, work and in schools and other institutions. We have to make a decision to be conscious of what we do and what the long term consequences may be. The beauty of carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments is that they are quick and dirty. One size fits all. So, what do we do instead?

Well, the answer is NOT one size fits all. It takes time and attention.  We must pay attention to reason. We need to build relationships that include trust, respect, collaboration and choice. We must work toward shared decision-making and power. We have to talk with our children and partners. We can also take responsibility and discuss things when we goof up. 

“The capacity to call into question one’s long standing ways of thinking and acting….belongs to the top of the list of what makes a good parent or teacher. And Skinnerian dogma belongs at the top of any list of what needs careful reexamination.  The bad news is that we have paid an enormous price for having accepted it for so long. The good news is  that we can do better.” 

Increase Learning and Motivation book review of Punished by rewards at


This review was originally published in The Homeschooler Magazine, Spring 2014 Issue.