Several years ago, The New York Times ran a column by Amy Sutherland, who’d learned the reward system of animal trainers and put it to work on her husband. She praised him for putting his clothes in the hamper, for example, and ignored his dirty socks on the floor, for example.
I’ve thought of that concept often — that it’s easier to reward doing something than to reward *not* doing it, and maybe punishing the bad behavior doesn’t pay off.
Then a Deepak Chopra article got me thinking about just what we should reward. Is it the result or the process?
Chopra’s article headlined “Which Leads to More Success, Reward or Encouragement?” says in part:
We are a society that puts a huge emphasis on rewards, and a school of psychology is based on it. In behavioral psychology, an American invention, there are two ways to stimulate a response from someone, either reward them or punish them. This two-way mechanism works with lower animals — dog and horse trainers, for example, use food treats to reinforce the behavior they want — so it should work with humans, or so the logic goes. If you want a certain behavior out of prisoners, for example, behaviorists advise giving privileges as a reward for obeying the rules and punishment for disobeying them.
The problem is that human behavior isn’t that simple, because we have inner lives. A dog or horse will be content with a steady supply of food and a warm place to live. Those things are barely the minimum for meeting human needs. There is another duality besides reward-punishment that plays a huge part in the career arc of every successful person: encouragement-discouragement.
To be encouraged means literally to acquire courage, while to be discouraged is to give in to fear. Soldiers need courage to charge into battle, and without it, they won’t. Every person conceals a level of fear and anxiety inside, however, and in order to meet life’s challenges and crises, we all have to discover how much courage we have. This is a prime example of why reward-punishment is inadequate on its own. To face your fears isn’t a pleasant experience that anyone would consider a reward — it’s much closer to being a punishment. Yet in the long run, many accomplishments in life come our way only if we overcome fear and acquire courage.
Instead of withholding the gold star only for those who get to the result, Chopra’s saying we should reward the attempt. Support those bravely facing fear or adversity or challenge.
Similarly, an article on kqed.org encourages praising children for their efforts, not just calling them smart.
Katrina Schwartz’s article “Giving Good Praise to Girls: What Messages Stick” talks about research by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford who studies praise.
“My research shows that praise for intelligence or ability backfires,” said Dweck, who co-authored a seminal research paper on the effects of praise on motivation and performance. “What we’ve shown is that when you praise someone, say, ‘You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re not. It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty, trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over time.”
But what some might not know is that this paradox is strongest for girls.
Dweck’s research, which focuses on what makes people seek challenging tasks, persist through difficulty and do well over time, has shown that many girls believe their abilities are fixed, that individuals are born with gifts and can’t change. Her research finds that when girls think this way, they often give up, rather than persisting through difficulties. They don’t think they possess the ability to improve, and nowhere is the phenomenon stronger than in math.
… If adults emphasize that all skills are learned through a process of engagement, value challenge and praise efforts to supersede frustration rather than only showing excitement over the right answer, girls will show resilience. It also might help to provide a road map to correct the gender imbalance that already exists in fields requiring math and science, jobs that often involve setbacks, “failing,” and overcoming challenges.
Encouragement can tell you that just because something is hard doesn’t mean you aren’t capable. Encouragement pats you on the back for committing yourself to the challenge.
My improv friends will appreciate that I think the answer here is “Yes, and …”
Reward and celebrate the results. When you’ve worked long and hard, it’s nice to feel recognized. It’s something that powers me into the next long hard slog.
And in the meantime, encourage the effort it takes to get there. Praise commitment to trying even when it’s tough. Be a cheerleader for colleagues, employees and friends who are pushing themselves.
What do you respond to — encouragement for your efforts or praise for your results?
Which do you give more often?