Get Alfie Kohn on the Phone!

According to research published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, smokers who were offered financial incentives to quit smoking were more likely to do so.  As the Wall Street Journal describes it:

“For the new study, researchers, led by a team from the University of Pennsylvania, tracked 878 General Electric Co. employees from around the country for a year and a half in 2005 and 2006. Participants, who smoked an average of one pack of cigarettes a day, were divided into two groups of roughly equal size. All received information about smoking-cessation programs.

Members of one group also got as much as $750 in cash, with the payments spread out over time to encourage longer-term abstinence. Those participants got $100 for completing a smoking-cessation program, $250 if they stopped smoking within six months after enrolling in the study, and $400 for continuing to abstain from smoking for an additional six months.

All participants were contacted three months after they enrolled in the study and periodically after that. Those who said they had stopped smoking at any point during the study were asked to submit saliva or urine samples for testing so that their claims could be verified.

About 14.7% of the group offered financial incentives said they had stopped smoking within the first year of the study, compared with 5% of the other group. At the time of their last interview for the 18-month study, 9.4% of the paid group was still abstaining compared with 3.6% of those who got no money.”

Wait a minute!  If I’ve learned one thing from Alfie Kohn it is that extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic motivation.  The smokers paid to stop should have had the internal motivation to quit undermined and should have been less successful than those who quit for the pure joy of it.

I’ve got an idea.  Let’s stop paying people for their work because it only undermines their internal motivation to work.  And to avoid undermining Alfie Kohn’s motivation, I’m sure he’d understand if people stopped paying him for his lectures and books.

3 Responses to Get Alfie Kohn on the Phone!

  1. Students of Education can reinforce Kohn’s motivation by collaborating in the purchase of any of Kohn’s books which his professors require for their courses. Split the cost five ways. Better, read library copies.

  2. Alsadius says:

    Interesting study – hardly a surprise, but it’s always good to see that things do work the way I expect that they should. And to be fair to Kohn, the phenomenon in question is real, if the rewards are too low. If they offered them $20 instead of $750, you might well see lower quitting rates in the paid group, because they look at it as a badly-compensated job instead of as a worthwhile thing to do. Financial incentives work, but if you lowball them it is possible for them to backfire.

  3. W. L. Goodridge says:

    If you’d ease up on the sarcasm long enough to read the study (not just a newspaper’s summary), you’d find that more than 90% of the people who received a financial incentive for quitting smoking ended up relapsing, and the relapse rate (after the payments stopped) was actually higher for those who got the incentive than for those who didn’t. Also, the study only compared those who got an incentive to those who got no treatment at all (the control group). There wasn’t a non-incentive intervention to help people quit. Earlier studies that included such a condition have found that adding an incentive not only didn’t help but actually reduced the effectiveness of the intervention. (Other studies, meanwhile, not related to smoking cessation, have found that the bigger the reward, the more damage it does to intrinsic motivation.)

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