Is knowledge its own reward?

So I’ve been grappling (solely in my head) with issues of intrinsic motivation and reward… how do I use rewards in a “wise” way?

One interesting way to think about this question comes from Aubry Alvarez and Amy Booth at Northwestern University. They did a genius study where they asked 3-5 year olds to complete a boring task (placing pegs into a pegboard); afterward they will all be shown a new animal. For some children they offered an additional reward. There was a physical reward condition, “finish this and I will give you a sticker”; and two separate knowledge reward conditions, “finish this and I will tell you a cool fact about the animal.”

These researchers capitalized on previous work that shows that children have a preference for causal, explanatory facts over less causal facts; children wanna know more about how the world works! So in one knowledge reward condition, children were told a causally-rich factthis animal has things on its back that squirts green slime at bad animals when they get too close. In the knowledge reward condition, children were told a causally-weak fact — this animal has things on its back that turn green and slimy when it grows up.

Here’s the cool result:

figure 1.png

Causal facts are the best reward (for getting these preschoolers to persist on a boring task) and statistically indistinguishable from stickers!

The authors note that even though these causal facts may be reducing the intrinsic interest in the pegboard task itself (boohoo), at least this kind of reward is consistent with a broader “pleasure of learning”! Even though rewards might reduce interest in the task at hand, perhaps a reward like this one might support interest in more learning! This is a trade-off I’m more willing to take.
To me, I think thinking about causality has also made me realize why I think melanin is a more satisfying answer to young children’s race questions! It’s a causal explanation (e.g., melanin as protection from sun; folks from sunnier places have more melanin). I wish I could get a student interested in knowing whether causal explanations helps kids be less racist than non-causal ones (which I mostly find in these race books — “different races are beautiful”).

So for the question, “Is knowledge its own reward?” the answer turns out to be YES! But only some kinds of knowledge!!!

[Here’s a blog post by Garth Sundem on the same study from Psychology Today.]


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