How’s that carrot & stick thing working for you?

When people think of motivation they tend to recall the “carrot and stick” analogy. Then they remember that there is usually a donkey involved with this scenario. The rider on the donkey dangles a carrot in front of the donkey as “motivation”. When that doesn’t work the rider reaches for the stick to help with “extra motivation”.

When that stops working what does the rider have left?

A bigger carrot? More stick? Maybe the rider just blames the donkey because it’s lazy and unmotivated?

Ever feel like this with your old approach to nutrition?
Ever feel like this with your old approach to nutrition?

Or more accurately, maybe we can say that the whole “carrot stick” approach just does not work!

Motivation and Your Progress

All animals are “motivated” to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So, in order to “motivate” clients, we come up with some pain to avoid (aka the stick), and some pleasure as a reward (aka a carrot).

Seems logical right?

Except it doesn’t work!

Research tells us that basic reward-punishment systems only work:

  • for a very short time
  • on animals or people who depend on those rewards (e.g. house pets, children)
  • for very basic motor-skill tasks (e.g. sorting widgets)

Practicing healthy living and good nutrition is not a very short term process, you are not a house pet or child, and in our modern world healthy living is not a basic motor-skill!

What do you want a year from now?

Do you want to learn something?

Do you want to feel more in control of your life?

Do you want to be a proactive thinker, able to respond flexibly and creatively, showing resilience against life’s inevitable challenges?

Do you want to devise a well-reasoned plan of action for self-improvement?

Well, that’s exactly what rewards and punishments DON’T produce.

What we learn from rewards and punishments

  • That the end justifies the means. And only the short-term end matters.
  • That performance is everything, and it doesn’t matter how you get there — whether that’s cheating, short cuts, or sloppy work.
  • That the reward is more important than the actual task you’re doing to get that reward.
  • That your approval and care is contingent — and can be taken away at any minute.
  • That punishment “buys out” unwanted behavior — so clients just calculate how much they can afford to lose (like ignoring overdue library books, because hey, who cares about a few bucks of fines?)
  • That the task you want them to do — i.e. eat well and exercise — sucks. Because if it didn’t suck, why would you need rewards and punishments to motivate it?
  • That “mistakes”, “failure”, and “imperfection” are shameful and must be avoided.
  • That clients only have to work until they get the reward… then no further. And when the reward goes away, the behaviour goes away too.
  • That the reward is the point, not learning the actual skill (in other words, that the purpose of good nutrition is to get a gold star).
  • That clients are not responsible for their own progress — or even their own life, because someone else is determining and handing out those rewards and punishments.

Your Brain on Rewards

Rewards activate the same centers in the brain as a cheap chemical high. Conversely, pain avoidance activates the brain’s fear center.

This also interferes with learning and complex thinking. When you’re scared, you’re not going to slow down to take the time to solve a complicated problem — say, meal planning. You’re going to fight, run, or freeze up.

And you’ll choose the path of least resistance: the bad habits you already know will soothe you.

In short, overuse of rewards and punishments turns our brains into mush, and our lives into one big bad-habit canyon.

What to do next

1. Understand that relationships trump rewards. Conversely, rewards kill relationships

You can’t beat or cajole change into people-or yourself.

You can only guide them into change by building strong, compassionate, accepting relationships. Like finding a coach that practices a client-centered approach.

Think of your favorite teacher. She activated all the the brain areas that deal with all the cognitive skills you need in order to transform your body and behaviors

  • creativity
  • problem solving
  • learning
  • memory
  • and reasoning

2. Recognize and celebrate growth

Rewards should be judged on whether they lead to lasting change — which persists in the absence of the reward. You’re looking for long-term improvement, not short-term quick fixes that fall apart.

In the end, nutrition coaching is about creating a strong relationship with the client using methods of motivation that make the client (not the coach) responsible and accountable to themselves. 

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