How 51 kids’ pictures can help your kids


Image courtesy of FRAN GAMBIN

51 children

The 51 kids didn’t quite know what to expect as the experiment began*. Not that they knew it was an experiment, these 3-5 year olds just got to draw pictures. And they’d already shown that they loved drawing pictures.

But on this day, in 1973, there was a twist. Some of them wouldn’t love drawing as much afterwards.

Unbeknownst to them, they had been broken into three groups, with a different condition for each group.

In the first, they agreed to draw pictures to get a reward.

In the second, they got a reward afterwards, but didn’t know they were getting it.

In the third, they didn’t expect a reward, and didn’t get one.

What was going on?

Two types of motivation

For what we need to think about, there are two main types of motivation.




Intrinsic motivation is the kind of motivation which pushes you because there is something inherently motivating in the task itself.

This can be things like

  • the fun or pleasure involved in the task
  • how important or significant I think it is

One of my kids really is like this with drawing; she sketches, draws and doodles, just because she loves doing it. A lot.

The other is like this with singing. In the shower, in the bathroom (especially in the bathroom), in the bedroom, inside, outside…

Extrinsic motivation by contrast, is the kind of motivation that pulls you because there is something else involved, some external factor like money, praise, grades, fame and so on.

Tidying their bedroom is clearly not intrinsically motivating for my children. Some kids just love tidying up and keeping their room tidy. Not mine. But if there’s a reward, well, it somehow manages to get done and wasn’t so bad after all.

In this experiment, the goal was to understand what happens if we reward someone for doing what they love to do anyway.

What’s happening under the surface

When we’re talking about our kids, both kinds of motivation are at play. But if you think carefully about this for a moment, you’ll see that extrinsic motivation is strongly linked to things like rewards, which we’ve talked about before.

The next step is realizing that rewards become the thing I’m striving for, rather than success at the thing itself. The result is behavior directed at getting stuff, rather than at achieving stuff.

In the classroom, at home, with friends, if rewards drive behavior, we need constantly to offer them, and they become the expectation, and then the norm.

However, if the satisfaction of the task, or the significance of it, is pleasurable, then we don’t need external rewards. You’ll also see in here how it is that kids (and adults!) who are intrinsically motivated, are more likely to strive harder, spend more time and stick with it longer, because they enjoy what they do.

But when we’re extrinsically motivated, unless the rewards are worth it, we really aren’t interested. There’s nothing pulling me to do it. If you’ve ever found yourself telling, berating, threatening, wheedling, cajoling and conspiring to get your kids to do an unpleasant task, and finally resorted to a reward if they do it, then you’ve seen the mechanics of extrinsic motivation for yourself.

When intrinsic becomes extrinsic

For these 51 kids, the results were, unfortunately, predictable. Those kids rewarded for a task that they once found enjoyable, were now motivated extrinsically rather than intrinsically. They drew because they were told they’d get a reward.

They didn’t draw as much anymore.

Now they needed a reward, an external pull to get them to do it. The quantity of their drawing dropped.

But more disturbingly, so did the quality of what they did. Aesthetically, their new work was judged to be worse than previously. All because of a reward. It’s called overjustification.

But for those kids not expecting a reward, or given one unexpectedly, they produced more work, and work of a higher quality.

Attributions and motivation go together

So when we looked at the work of Carol Dweck and how a little change in language can generate a massive change in performance, you’ll see how what she did, while primarily about what we attribute success to, also pushed the kids to find the task itself more enjoyable.

In both cases, the task itself became the key factor, even if the task was challenging and involved failure.

The key bit

In the learning environment, whether this is at school, home, the clubrooms or wherever,

being continually able to make internal attributions about the learning, keeps the learning intrinsically motivating.

This means I can control the outcome, I know it’s not luck but other things (like trying hard), I feel able to achieve it and the learning itself becomes interesting.

This, in other words, is a virtuous circle.

So here’s the take home bit

Learning (including rewards and reinforcement) is closely linked to motivation. Built into the link is the attributions we make.

While it’s true that not every kid is interested in every thing and, as parents, we’ll continue to reward or bribe our kids to get them to do stuff, there are some gems here.

Stick with promoting internal attributions for learning, achievement and success.

Make unpleasant tasks more significant or important, as this increases intrinsic motivation

Try and avoid rewards for stuff kids already do, as you’ll shift them from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation.

Love to hear how you get on.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation

What do you think?

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*Lepper, M.R., Greene, D. & Nisbett, R.E. (1973) Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the overjustification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(1), pp. 129-137


About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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2 Responses to How 51 kids’ pictures can help your kids

  1. Alex says:

    So can we make a boring, not fun task more intrinsically motivating for a child to do by trying to make it fun so they enjoy doing it? I.e. – putting on their favourite music for them to clean their room to so its now an enjoyable task? Great food for thought here, Brendon! Thanks!

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