Monday, February 18, 2013

Rewards for Good Behavior

I've been shamed into posting again on this blog which is a good thing. I'd gotten lazy (or distracted or busy) but the excuses aside, it has been just over a year since I last posted.

I've been thinking about the concept of a person being rewarded for being virtuous. In today's culture, we emphasize positive feedback, incentives, and rewards to those who are simply doing the right thing. We have been told this is necessary to build self-esteem in children and to motivate our players (and workers). We call people heroes for calling 911 when they spot a fire;  we're shocked when an elite runner allows the leader to finish the race ahead of him when the leader mistakenly thought he had already reached the finish line.

I'm not opposed to rewards for virtuous action outright. They all have their place, particularly when used judiciously and in the right context. Good coaches know this. I don't know of any college basketball player who wants to get a big "hooray" and a gold star every time she makes a layup in practice. But what about rewarding behavior that is simply "the right thing to do" as opposed to the behavior that helps win a game?

In many respects I think media reaction to stories such where athletes assist competitors to their own disadvantage (for good reasons, not because they are "throwing" the contest) need to balance out the almost savage beatings that our athletes get when they commit crimes, violate rules, or act in a wildly unsportsmanlike manner. Why shouldn't we seek to create heroes when so many of our stars become vilified for straying outside the lines of acceptable behavior?

Athletes are very tuned into reward for correct action. It happens often and instantaneously in many sports where, if you perform the skills correctly, good things will happen. If you perform them enough times correctly and are surrounded by teammates who do the same (assuming you are playing a team sport), you'll probably win a lot of games, maybe even a championship.

So when an athlete does something right but doesn't win or get noticed because of it what will she learn? What will she gain? How do we help athletes believe that taking a virtuous action, regardless of whether it is noticed or results in recognition, is reward in itself? The idea that virtue is its own reward seems to have lost some of its luster these days.

Some would claim that rewarding someone for "doing the right thing" both cheapens the act and renders that person too reliant on personal gain. But can you teach someone to be gratified for doing the right thing by not recognizing them or ignoring what they have done? That seems to make no sense either.  I have no answer other than excessive reward feels like we have given up on people being good for its own sake - that we have to reward them with something external - otherwise they may never perform any self-sacrificing act. And we know this is not true. Athletes are virtuous every day without anyone noticing. And some just go on being virtuous throughout their lives without the trophy to show for it.

1 comment:

  1. It was worth the wait. Good point about virtue and reward. The optimist would expect virtue to be inherent in human nature but the realist knows that very few acts of kindness are publically acknowledged, especially in the sports world. Perhaps one lesson from the story above is that an athlete need not compromise his or her competitiveness (the desire to compete against the best effort of another) by acting virtuously (letting the leader win). Indeed, the runner readily admits that if the stakes were higher, he may not have been so magnanimous (something that his coach may impress upon him in the future!). This is a good lesson for the athlete and non-athlete alike....virtuous acts are their own reward.