Reward That!

In third grade, I participated in the MS Readathon. Just like a Walkathon, the Readathon asked you to collect pledges for each book you read during a specific period of time. Depending on how much money you raised, there were prizes and rewards – books, posters, certificates, and more. Plus, our school held an assembly where the highest earners were publicly honored.

Now, as you probably know from following this blog, I love to read. Back in third grade, that was just as true. I spent my recess time with my nose in a book, and my favorite activity was going to the library.

I also, as it happens, love public recognition and praise. So as a third-grader, I set my sights on being the highest earner in the school. I wanted to stand up in front of everyone and have the principal say what a good reader I was, and how I was so committed to community service, and that everyone in the school should try to be more like me. I literally dreamed about it for weeks.

I was a smart kid, so I sat down and did the math. I could spend my time recruiting lots of donors – not really my strength. Or I could get a couple of per-book pledges, and then just read a whole hell of a lot.

I somehow managed to wangle a dollar-a-book pledge out of my parents, who should have known better. After hitting up my grandparents and my parents’ closest friends, I was up to $2.50 a book. After researching how much the previous year’s winner had raised, I figured that I needed to read at least a hundred books in thirty days in order to win.

Let me say that again. A hundred books. Thirty days.  If I wanted to get on that stage, I needed a plan.

On the first day of the Readathon, I went to the library. Instead of heading for my usual haunts, the science fiction and adult sections, I went straight for the kids’ room. I picked the shortest, thinnest chapter books I could find. Ramona Quimby? Two hundred pages. Out. Frog and Toad Are Friends? Sixty-four pages. In. Forty books were no problem for me to carry home, and at that length I could handle at least one a day with ease.

Next I hit up my sister’s collection. She was in kindergarten at the time; even though she’d also been an early reader, her books were nice and short and simple. She wouldn’t let me take them out of her room, so I put a pillow on the floor and dug in. I could easily read five a day, in addition to my library booty.

To make a long story short: in thirty days, I read a hundred and ninety two books. My donors were flabbergasted. I raised a whole lot of money. I got up on that stage, just like I wanted. And after the ceremony, the principal called me into his office to explain that I hadn’t exactly kept to the spirit of the contest.

“You mean raising a lot of money?” I said. “I did that!”

“Well,” he said gently, “how you do it also matters.”

I wasn’t going to smart-talk the principal, but I knew better. If the how mattered, they would have put it in the rules.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Readathon experience lately, because it’s a classic case of what’s referred to as “undermining intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards.” I loved to read because I loved disappearing into a story. I loved learning new things and challenging my mind. I loved talking to my dad about books, and I lived for the approval he’d give me when I had something interesting to say about them. But for thirty days, all that was on hold. My approach to reading became an instrumental one, all about quantity rather than quality. Instead of thinking about what I was reading, I was thinking about how fast I could finish and what I would look like up on stage. I was thinking about what reading would get for me, not what reading meant to me.

Now, that doesn’t mean I think that all rewards undermine your interest in things. In fact, most complicated rewards start out as extrinsic to the individual. We’re biologically programmed to find certain things rewarding (food, affection) but over time we develop more complex desires. Even if humans have a common hierarchy of needs, the ways we think we can fulfill them are defined by our shared culture and our individual experiences. I may have an innate need for novelty, achievement, respect, and creativity, but learning to get those things through reading took time and was supported by rewards that weren’t always related to reading per se.

The question, then, is how to design an external reward system that supports intrinsic interest rather than undermining it. I found three lessons for reward system design in the Readathon, so I’ll share them with you.

First, reward the right things. The Readathon rewarded the total amount of money raised, which lent itself to exploitation. I knew kids who saw that as a challenge to read as little as they could. Instead, they spent all their time soliciting pledges. I was terribly jealous of a girl in my class who was getting more than ten dollars a book! Similarly, my “read only easy books” approach was all about gaming the system.

Second, control reward potency. Part of the reason that I dropped my pleasure reading for a month was because the external reward – being publicly praised – was so powerful for me. Now, not everyone feels as strongly about recognition as I do, but not everyone loves reading as much, either. The key is to start with a good ratio between the value of the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, and to lower the relative value of extrinsic rewards as intrinsic motivation increases.

Finally, consider your audience. One of the Readathon’s unspoken goals was to get kids more engaged with reading. But I was already a passionate reader who could handle adult books! I don’t think I read a single book at grade level, let alone at my actual reading level, in the whole month – but for another child the books I read might have been challenging. A system that’s going to include a young Jessica, a grade-level reader, and a struggling reader has to have rewards and roles for all of them.

Fortunately for me, my Readathon experience didn’t change my lasting attitude toward books – but not everyone who encounters a broken reward system is so lucky. That’s why I spend my time working on reward system design, and trying to come up with principles that can help other designers do it better.

3 thoughts on “Reward That!”

  1. Funny, but that same broken rewards system led to one of my earliest acts of rebellion against an “unjust system”. I was a reader, and was so disgusted by the gross capitalism of reading for money and pats on the head that out of spite (and to my teacher’s dismay) I refused to read a single thing all month. I wouldn’t even read words off the board.

    I guess that’s the other thing about reward systems – considering outpost cases and how your reward may conflict with thier intrinsic drive.

  2. I had a very similar experience during a summer read-a-thon, which I approached in a similar manner. How funny when we realize that our experiences may not be unique. 🙂

    The last point is one that I think it particularly challenging. I ran into it the one year that I was a teacher. I taught a language class, so I had the entire range of students in the class. This included a girl who was barely literate at 21 (the product of a very broken system) and a girl who really should take her interpreters exam based on her acquisition ability. Developing a system that would reward both was extremely difficult and I’m not sure I actually succeeded.

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