Many people live on a reward system. If they make it through the work week, then they can go out for drinks with their friends on Friday night. If they go to the early church service on Sunday, then they can go get brunch afterward. If they stick to their diet Sunday through Friday, then they can order pizza on Saturday. This idea of rewarding oneself often carries over into childrearing. If the kids get their homework done before dinner, then they can have an extra hour of TV time at night. If the toddler stays quiet during church, they can have a donut at breakfast. If the teenager does not argue about doing their chores all week, they can stay out an hour past curfew on the weekend.
On the surface, such reward systems sound like a good idea. Rewards encourage good behavior, right? Well, they do in the short term, but rewards can make it difficult to stick to good habits in the long term. If someone always rewards themselves for practicing good behavior, they do not develop the habit of doing good behavior simply because it is good for them. Someone who rewards themselves with a piece of cake because they went to the gym is not motivated by the increased cardiovascular health, greater energy or heightened focus they gain from exercising. They are motivated by the piece of chocolate cake. Then, when they are out of cake, they do not go exercise. After all, the reward is not there so why would they take part in the behavior? The person has essentially trained themselves that they need cake to exercise.
Such self-reward systems are very common. Most people who try to lose weight reward themselves with food. Food rewards are troublesome in the first place as they attach emotional significance to food. This can lead to emotional eating problems or even eating disorders. Beyond this, however, rewarding healthy eating or exercise habits with junk food negates the effects of said healthy eating or exercise. Most people do similar things when breaking bad habits. They reward themselves for following a good habit with a bad habit. People who are trying to cut back on social media usage may reward themselves with two extra hours of Facebook time on the weekend if they stay off social media all week.
Rewarding oneself with bad habits causes problems in several ways. It reinforces the association of the bad habit with good feelings. To use the cake and exercise example, the cake is the reward. This means it has very positive associations in the person’s mind. The exercise is what a person has to do to earn the reward. The fact that exercising earns a reward implies that exercise is an unpleasant task that one must be bribed to undertake. This is not a good subconscious association to develop if a person has any desire to create or continue a healthy exercise regime.
In addition to creating pleasant and unpleasant associations with bad and good habits respectively, rewarding oneself with bad habits makes it harder than ever to either ditch bad behaviors or develop good ones. Using bad behaviors as a reward makes it harder than ever to drop the bad behavior once the reward is over. A person has had a taste of what they were missing. Now, they have to give it up again. Starting, stopping and restarting is much more difficult than simply continuing. Ask anyone who trained for a marathon, gave up running and then tried to get back in shape. It is much easier to simply continue running all year.
Rewarding oneself with bad behaviors can also keep good behaviors from becoming actual habits. Habits are automatic and done without thought. This is why when someone asks if another person flushed the toilet five minutes after they left the bathroom, the person may struggle to remember. They pushed the handle out of habit, and so the action barely registered in their brain. The same is true of a person brushing their teeth. They do it automatically instead of having to consciously remember and decide to clean their teeth every morning.
Rewards keep behaviors firmly in the “conscious decision” category. No one rewards themselves for brushing their teeth or flushing the toilet or locking their car. Such habits are automatic. When the goal is to create healthy habits, rewards keep those would-be habits from becoming automatic. Instead, they are still active decisions. When a person can make a good decision, they can also make a poor one.
Using a system of rewards also keeps a person relying on extrinsic motivators. Essentially, this means they are reliant on having a “carrot” in front of them. This is problematic because it takes intrinsic motivation for good habits to form and stick. Someone who has no real, personal interest in changing is not going to change. They might practice good or healthy behavior for a time, but without any internal motivation to preserve that good behavior, they will relapse into bad habits. This is part of why addicts who are forced to go to rehab are far more likely to fall off the wagon. Whether the problem involves drugs or a love of chocolate chip cookies that exceeds their jeans waistband, no one can really fix a problem until they admit they have one.
Rewards can be useful in the short term, but they should be replaced by intrinsic motivation or rewards that encourage good behaviors. Instead of using chocolate cake as a reward for exercising, splurge on that new set of running shoes. Rather than using extra Facebook time as a reward for staying off social media, go out to a nice dinner with friends. Use rewards as a teaching tool, not as a bad-habit-encrusted carrot, and there may be no need for any sort of stick.