Monday, October 24, 2005

The Truth About Rewards: Flash from the Present - "She basically bribed me..."

Who was this "Flash from the Present"?

At the beginning of school, he got off to a rocky start - "School was pretty hard for me at the beginning. My mother taught me how to read before I got to school and so when I got there I really just wanted to do two things. I wanted to read books because I loved reading books and I wanted to go outside and chase butterflies. You know, do the things that five year olds like to do. I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. And they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me. By the time I was in third grade...the only way we had fun was to create mischief."

But things changed when he entered the fourth grade. The school decided to split him up from his best buddy, and he got put into the "advanced" fourth grade class, maybe by accident. His teacher watched him for 2 weeks, then pulled him aside and said, "Steven, I'll tell you what. I'll make you a deal. I have this math workbook and if you take it home and finish on your own without any help and you bring it back to me, if you get it 80% right, I will give you five dollars and one of these really big suckers she bought and she held it out in front of me. One of these giant things. And I looked at her like "Are you crazy lady"? Nobody's ever done this before and of course I did it."

"She basically bribed me back into learning with candy and money and what was really remarkable was before very long I had such a respect for her that it sort of re-ignited my desire to learn. She got me kits for making cameras. I ground my own lens and made a camera. It was really quite wonderful. I think I probably learned more academically in that one year than I learned in my life. It created problems though because when I got out of fourth grade they tested me and they decided to put me in high school and my parents said "No."

Who was this young man who snapped at the simple bait of a big lollipop and 5 bucks? This was Steven Jobs, now "a high-strung work-aholic", but super-intrinsically-motived CEO of Apple and Pixar. So a little bribing didn't hurt him too much.

Between intrinsic motivation (motivation for a task for its own sake) and extrinsic motivation (motivation for an external reward, like money, candy, or fame), it makes sense that intrinsic motivation is 'better'- but let's face it, kids don't always hanker after long-term goals, and there are benefits for a work ethic that doesn't demand intrinsic satisfaction 24/7 (like who'll get stuck taking out the trash?).

If you think about it, Steven's teacher really did do a number of good things.

1. She singled him out (don't think it would have worked as well if she had offered the deal to everyone in the class).
2. She gave him a significant challenge.
3. She made sure he bought into the 'deal', and
4. She later rewarded him with interesting work, like making a camera and grinding his own lens.

The fMRI below compares the patterns of brain activation with immediate and delayed gratification (a monetary reward). Not surprisingly, there appears to be more excitement with the immediate reward (red).

Interview with Steven Jobs
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Complex Framework of Reward
Delayed vs Immediate Gratification and fMRI

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