“If you finish your peas, I’ll tell you why the sky is blue.”
“If you put your toys in the bin, I’ll explain why kangaroos have pouches.”
“If you brush your teeth, I’ll tell you why some Native Americans used to move frequently instead of building permanent homes.”
Win-win. Sounds too great to be true—but it might not be. A recent study finds that young children will voluntarily do a boring task if they are rewarded with “causally rich knowledge.”
Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Young children are delightfully infamous for asking why over and over. Long ago, a walk along a river bank with one of my nieces became downright existential within 20 minutes. The sun, the moon, the water, the frogs, the people—why do they shine, sparkle, jump, talk … why are we all here…. I answered as best I could, took mental notes on books to buy, picked one topic to research together when we got home, and suggested we make dandelion bracelets.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Even if you’re not surprised by the main finding, this study is still worth a quick read. Why? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) Because the researchers tease out exactly what is motivating the three- and four-year-olds to persist with the boring task (putting 25 pegs in a peg board). The four conditions tested—no reward, stickers, causally rich information, and causally weak information—offer some interesting nuances. Stickers worked, of course, but not as well as you might guess. Being rewarded with causally rich knowledge was the only condition that significantly increased children’s persistence. (I’m dreaming of this headline: Sticker Sales Plummet: Teachers Say Rewarding Curiosity Is More Powerful than Gold Stars.)
Strikingly, causally weak information had no effect—the results were the same as in the no reward condition. Motivation came specifically from being told why—not merely being told that. To ensure that causal richness was the only distinguishing factor in the two knowledge conditions, the researchers created images of several animals and artifacts to show to the children and then carefully crafted descriptions. Here are two of the items invented for the study:
We shouldn’t ever make too much of one study, but this one does give teachers and caregivers some ideas to play with harmlessly. If you can get in the habit of focusing on causation while presenting information, you just might have a powerful tool. Among potential benefits, the researchers note that causally rich information might be useful as a reward for necessary-but-not-so-interesting tasks like “practicing penmanship or math facts” (of course, this study would have to be repeated to see if older children perceive such information as a reward). And, using information as a reward may help avoid the detriments to internal motivation that can arise with tangible rewards.