Incentives, Choice, Education And Well-Being

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Oxford Review Of Education


It is a truism that giving people multiple reasons to engage in some activity will increase the chances of that activity—that two reasons are better than one. It is another truism, in the developed, Western world, that more freedom brings more well‐being, and that more choice brings more freedom. In education, these truisms have led to the use of financial incentives (along with the intrinsic incentives already presumed to be present) to motivate students and teachers alike, and to expanded curricular choice for students, and expanded school choice for students and their parents. The thesis of this paper is that both truisms, though plausible, are false. First, the paper reviews evidence that incentives extrinsic to the tasks at hand—whether administered to teachers or to students—can undermine intrinsic motivation to teach and to learn, resulting in worse performance than would have resulted without extrinsic incentives. Because of this ‘motivational competition’, I argue that standard extrinsic incentives should be used in educational settings only with great care. Second, the paper reviews evidence that there can be too much choice, resulting in paralysis, inferior performance and dissatisfaction. Though choice, autonomy and personal control are important contributors to well‐being, there can be too much of a good thing. Both extrinsic incentives and excessive choice can threaten well‐being associated with the educational process, the first by taking meaning and engagement out of educational activities, and the second by undermining satisfaction with those activities.

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