Think You Can Bribe Kids? A New Study Proves You're Wrong

Parents, it's time to put away the candy and gold stars. It turns out, kids don't love bribes as much as we've all come to believe, and there's a much better way to convince your children to continue with good behavior.

A new study reveals kids are much more inclined to explore all of their options before settling on immediate rewards, according to Ohio State News. Here's how it went: Children and adults played a virtual game. It showed four aliens handing out candy. To gain the reward, all the player needed to do was select the alien with the most candy. For children, there was a real-life incentive, too. They'd get as many stickers as candy they'd collected digitally.

Sounds simple, right? Adults thought so.

They figured out the formula to win the prizes round after round and collected many. Adults selected the alien with the most candy 86 percent of the time, the study revealed.

hildren draw a rainbow and the slogan of hope being shared in Italy “Andrà tutto bene.” (Everything will be alright.) during quarantine measures amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic on March 13, 2020 in Milan, Italy. Pietro D'Aprano/Getty Images/Getty

Children, though, were more likely to deny the prizes and look at other possible gameplay, and only selected the alien with the most candy 43 percent of the time. This doesn't necessarily mean they got the questions wrong, rather they used the gameplay to look into other possibilities than the most obvious. This was proven in a follow-up test in which 20 of 22 children were able to reveal the alien that held the most candy each time.

The reasoning behind this could lie in their inherent curiosity, or in the idea that children use any opportunity to gather intel about the world around them...even if it means they're going to fall behind in immediate gratification.

"Exploration seems to be a major driving force during early childhood—even outweighing the importance of immediate rewards," Vladimir Sloutsky, co-creator of the experiment, and Psychology professor at Ohio State University, said to Ohio State News. "We believe it is because young children need to explore to help them understand how the world works."

A second study used the same concept with a hidden amount of candy in one alien's possession. Kids were much more likely to select the secret stash—as they did 40 percent of the time—than adults, who rarely selected the unpredictable option.

This sense of exploration likely doesn't change until children enter double digits, Sloutsky told Newsweek via email. "We believe that the results further indicate the uniqueness of childhood—the only time in [a] person's life when they do not need to worry about economic outcomes of their action (because their economic needs are satisfied by adults)," he wrote.

"As a result, they can (and do) focus on exploration (i.e., getting information about the environment) and results in learning. We do know that this behavior changes quite slowly with age, with even 7-year-olds not reaching adults' levels. So, I think that maybe around 9 or 10 years of age they start approaching adult levels."

And it seems this sense of exploration applies to real-world adventure. Kids use the same curious spirit through sensory investigations as they take on the earth around them. "When adults think of kids exploring, they may think of them as running around aimlessly, opening drawers and cupboards, picking up random objects," Sloutsky noted. "But it turns out their exploration isn't random at all."

Updated 07/13/2020, 1:25 p.m. ET: This article was updated to include comment from Sloutsky.