How do incentives work for human behavior?

I’m asking in #parenting rather than #brainstuff because I am gonna tap a bunch of parents to weigh in.

There is probably a lot more to mention, but there is just so much, here are some assumptions:

  • Human behavior is adaptable, and adapts from it’s environment, which includes intentional cultural instruction
  • Human children are sometimes monstrous fucking annoying consumers of souls exhausting
  • Care givers use a variety of tools to instruct, guide, and sometimes coerce behavior in children

All this, ya know, this. We got here along a timeline, and in the past we were all instructed to behave as we do, or rather, there was instruction and this is how we ended up (for outcomes amounting to outright rebellion).

I guess what I’m getting at is… if I use psychological leverages on Clover to manipulate eir behavior, am I making em more susceptible to those manipulations in the future, from other external forces? By sinister extension, could I research, say, the narrative of the past 20-40 years, and use that narrative to manipulate the population at large? Am I being manipulated because of the stories told to me as a child, via the mechanisms used to “control” me, in the mass daycare system public education became?

Well, I’ll be honest, I’m not worried about me per se. I plant my hubris in rich soils composed of skepticism and free thought. What I’m worried about are all these impulses I have to “gamify” interactions that are rote.

Stuff like incentivizing Clover to get through all the school subjects for a day, even though some are obviously more difficult.

I’m tried to approach this from the other angle: well, if it is rote, and hard, is it important enough to force into the mix with other subjects? And that’s hard to face as a homeschooler (which I imagine nearly everyone is now). Because it’s hard to be a teacher when you are also definitely not a paid teacher.

@susan and I have one kid. You ever see a teacher open up their years old, worn-in teacher’s notebook or guide? How comfortable they are, how they don’t even use it for reference anymore? It serves as a bookmark to a section they teach year after year. We will never experience that level of comfort in any subject. :grimacing:

Okay, so to get through all these different subjects, out of a drive to meet compliance and not a little fear, we try to make it easier get through it.

They do the same thing at public school, in the form of awarding perks to students exhibiting types of behavior and academic ability. Clover got an exorbitant amount of “screen time”, because Clover has a lifestyle that lends to em behaving very well in public group settings, and excels at early elementary education, and knows how to game a system like no one’s business. And I’m sure Clover is not unique in that aspect (eir sense of what we’ll phrase as “humor” would be the snowflake identifier).

So I’m thinking, ha, I’ll use that to my advantage. Rather than the energy required to put kiddo back on track after pro-actively jumping off track, I could say, reward em with an hour of offline gaming (e really likes Minetest) after so many, um, “units of work”.

And then my train of thought jumped rails, because what the hell did I just do? Did I create a way for Clover’s “educational capital” to be spent at the “Company store” so to speak? If I create a made-up bullshit valuation system, that despite trying to be a bit of “sugar to make the medicine go down”, ends up presenting and solidifying the idea in my kid’s head that reality can function that way, am I contributing to that reality in eir adult life?

Now, it is possible this is just an age thing. Meaning, the average outlook of this brain of this age according to the psychological manuals I accept for my culture, that outlook may see this type of incentive system as helpful and useful, and will move on to other systems later, leaving this one behind. I would like to think that. One problem: I study systems, networks in particular, and game theory (for different reasons) and they all point to this behavior being exhibited in the adult population.

At the end of the day, I wonder: if our educational system requires we utilize rote learning methods, and human children resist rote learning methods, will parents left to their desperate situation of limited training at transmitting knowledge to their precious children, choose methods that additionally condition them to be more compliant and easier to manipulate?


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We have a kaleidoscope of incentives for our kids.

School incentives

  • If, by lunch, you have finished the before lunch subjects, you get 10 min video game time!
  • if, by 2:30pm you are all done with school, you get 20 min of screen time, dealers choice. (kid show or Minecraft)

Kindness incentives

  • if you have been sweet all morning (meaning trying your best to be kind, be good teammate, etc) then after lunch you get a small treat (like single cookie)
  • Same thing from lunch - dinner period


What I think is important is a child can have a difficult morning, but still be able to turn it around in the afternoon. We are also flexible somewhat of course to extenuating circumstances.

The reality is in life we always have things we don’t necessarily want to do. Work at job, clean, etc. What we hope to instill in the kids is a mindset of “well ok lets get done this work stuff efficiently and quick so we can focus on other things!” also it helps with them learning how to budget time somewhat.

We are very open with our reasons for the incentives and why we think the values are important. I see it more as helping reinforce behavior that will positively support them throughout their lives.

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This is a very good question I think more parents (and society) should think about. My parenting knowledge is retrospect. Being out of the system, I have been able to view it in the big picture sort of way and identify not just what works (and doesn’t), but what I agree with (and don’t).

When I was being raised, the punishment system was Vogue. As I raised my kids, the incentive method was starting to replace punishment. This seemed better, but it is still a conditioning, rather than teaching. Up until the point of reasoning (when your child is capable of reasoning and thinking through a concept), conditioning may be the only option, of which I prefer the reward system. This is also how we train animals btw.

Once a child can reason though I have concluded that a discussion of benefits and consequences of a certain behavior can transition from conditioning to free thinking, questioning, and deciding for oneself. This would perforce require an indefinite period of time as reason and abstract thought does not happen over night.

The drawback still comes when a free thinking person encounters a conditioned society. With learning free thinking, we will need to understand we are foreigners operating in a foreign country. We may need to speaking the “language” of the foreign country in order to function. The benefit comes from knowing exactly what you’re doing and why. As with the child, you hope to raise Into a free thinking individual, discussing why we do things, encouraging decision making, instead of reacting from conditioning should be started as early as possible.

One other thing I noticed is the reward being your time, acknowledgement, and attention are more sought by your child than any other reward that can be offered.