Here’s a story about a man with a machiavellian genius for psychological manipulation. (It comes from the US educator Alfie Kohn, so I’ll Britishise it here.) This man is elderly and lives near a school. Every afternoon a group of pupils subject him to merciless taunts as they walk home. So he approaches them and offers a deal: he’ll give each child £1 if they come back next day to taunt him further. Incredulous but excited, they agree. They return to mock him; he pays as promised, but tells them that the following day, he’ll only be able to afford to pay 25p per person. Still thrilled to be paid at all, the children are there again the next afternoon, whereupon the old man sadly explains that, henceforth, the daily reward for hurling abuse at him will be a mere 1p. “A penny?” The kids are scornful. For such pathetic money, it’s not worth the effort. They stalk off, grumbling, and never bother him again.
Why rewards can backfire