Many of us would back the notion that rewards motivate us. Easy to see why when we get rewarded at school with a gold star or a stamp from an early age, maybe with a cash bonus in the workplace and often through a gold medal in sports. In reality, rewards alone are not the best way to optimize motivation for long term successful outcomes, whether it be for athletes on the sporting field, students in classrooms, employees in the workplace or children at home with parents. Studies actually show that motivation based on something called the Self Determination Theory (SDT) is most aligned with long term successful outcomes and well-being. SDT claims that finding intrinsic motivators that provide individuals with a meaningful rationale for behavior, changing behavior or reaching goals creates more achievement and importantly better improvements in wellbeing than extrinsic motivators such as rewards.
Reward- based motivation for behavior is usually a short-term fix and can be best seen as controlling the behavior however supporting involvement and autonomy in setting goals and reaching them as is outlined in the SDT leads to longer lasting change driven by increased satisfaction and involvement.
According to SDT, encouraging your child to study and achieve good results at school by rewarding them with money or gifts will not benefit your child in the future however helping them to find autonomous and personal reasons for achieving good results will. By being involved in the goal setting and having some of their own psychological needs met through the achievement of that goal, children will be more likely continue to achieve. In the classroom, studies of students with teachers who used teacher-set, external rewards for good results produced children who were less likely to take risks in future years and who would choose easier courses at university where results would be higher rather than more difficult courses that they may find more enjoyable.
By comparison, Ryan and Deci (2000) also found that teachers who engaged in teaching through setting tangible and meaningful rewards with their students, produced future students who continued to learn and achieve, took more risks with their learning and had happier outcomes and more life satisfaction as a result.
Now translate this theory into what happens in your classroom,workplace, home or sporting club and you will most likely see the same results. SDT is a positive explanation for motivation and would suggest that adopting these principles as parents, employers, teachers and coaches, will lead to more successful outcomes and improved overall well-being.
Ryan,R. and Deci, E.(2000) January 2000 , Vol 55, No 1, 68-78, American Psychologist.