Some years ago I worked in a Hebrew school that had a program to reward students for various kinds of good behavior: giving tzedakah, arriving at school on time, helping the teacher during class, doing mitzvot outside of class. A student who did any of these things would receive a “Mitzvah Dollar” that could be spent in the school “Mitzvah Store” at the end of the year.
The only good result I saw from this was that it made it easy to teach the Hebrew word שמש (shamash, helper). The other effects—in particular, trying to get Mitzvah Bucks without putting in too much effort—were deleterious.
Research on “prosocial behavior” partly explains why the Mitzvah Bucks didn’t work as intended.
Scientists have three theories about how, or whether, children learn prosocial behavior. One theory is that the ability to perceive and react to another’s distress is hard-wired in humans. It can be observed in children as young as one year, too young to have been taught it.
This theory holds that the capacity is at least partially genetic. For example, identical twins react to a third person’s distress more like each other than do fraternal twins. They say, however, that this effect is small, a by-product of personality characteristics that experience also influences.
The second theory is that social behavior follows from motivation: it feels good to help other people. That’s hardly news, but brain research shows that giving to others activates the same parts of the brain as winning money for oneself.
The third is that good behavior derives from social cognition—the recognition that other people have needs and goals.
The second and third theories are compatible: cognitive understanding accompanied by a motivational reward reinforces prosocial behavior.
What is absent from these theories is any suggestion that external rewards encourage prosocial behavior. The research shows that financial rewards can undermine prosocial behavior.
So what should parents and teachers do? The first step is to model both prosocial behavior and its roots. In particular, we can help children learn empathy by explaining how others feel. For example, we might say, “It hurts Tommy when you hit him,” or “Sally feels sad because she’s left out.”
We should also be sure to offer opportunities to do good that our children will see as voluntary. And we should teach our children to perceive themselves as kind, generous, and helpful.
We should also help children understand and manage their own emotions. Sometimes empathy becomes a barrier to helping, because a child feels the emotion too strongly to respond appropriately.
We shouldn’t offer material rewards. The expectation of a reward is at cross-purposes with altruism.
Religious educators are sometimes unsure how to handle the promise of Divine rewards, that is, in the hereafter. It appears that the promise of a reward in the afterlife isn’t very effective in religions that emphasize it. Mainstream Judaism emphasizes doing good for its own sake, not for a future reward.