28 Oct

Intrinsic Reward: Change comes from within

October 28, 2018

I am routinely inspired to write in response to articles I read in the Sunday New York Times.  Today is no exception, as I read Alfie Kohn’s piece on the utter failure of trying to reinforce behavior through external rewards (think, money, time off, and even praise).  The book on which this piece is based is  available on Amazon,  https://www.amazon.com/Punished-Rewards-Trouble-Incentive-Praise/dp/B073KG1VT5?keywords=punished+by+rewards&qid=1540744432&s=Books&sr=1-2&ref=sr_1_2.  People think that the more money people are paid, the harder they work.  But this is simply not true.  In fact, studies have shown that people work the hardest, with regard to money, when they are paid fairly for their labor.  Too little or too much is demotivating.

More astonishing, according to Kohn, is that the sociological research indicates that most people do not respond positively to any type of external reward.  Any positive change in behavior that results is temporary.  Even worse, responses to external rewards are often negative, creating more undesirable behavior instead of less.  He summarizes the research showing that people act out of internal motivation, not external, and that working to change internal motivations is a long-term endeavor.  He says,

“Working with people to help them do a job better, learn more effectively, or acquire good values takes time, thought, effort, and courage. “

Kohn says that external rewards remain popular, in spite of the lack of evidence to support their effectiveness, primarily because it is easier for the person doing the rewarding. In other words, long-term internal change requires extended engagement and effort. And few people are willing or able to facilitate that process.

Kohn does not mention psychotherapy in his piece, but to my mind the findings he reports have many implications.  Perhaps the reader has already understood that this blog post is aimed at creating a better understanding of why long-term therapy that doesn’t rely on getting people to change negative behaviors, works better than short term efforts that do. (For more about the effectiveness of psychodynamic therapy see Jonathon Shedler’s  The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy [pdf])

Psychoanalytically informed treatment is aimed at helping the individual to determine what he or she wants and needs to change, without creating a schedule or a demand for doing so.  Both psychotherapy research and neuroscience research demonstrate that people change over time through self-awareness, which includes understanding both themselves and their impact on others.  Any changes that occur are not dictated by the therapist, but rather by the client/patient who is motivated to alter behaviors that are not compatible with their values and desires.  When the individual becomes more aware of inconsistencies, self-destructive behaviors, or feelings of guilt and shame, internally motivated behavioral changes often follow. These are the ones that last.

Neuroscience confirms that changing the neural pathways represented by old behaviors and the feelings that accompany them is no easy task.  Both client/patient and therapist need to be prepared for a long slog, with much repetition.  It requires the effort, thought, and courage that Kohn speaks of.

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