Fall 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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The Blue Ribbon: An American Way of Life

The effects of competition and rewards in 4-H.

Joseph A. Weber
Associate Professor and Human Development Specialist
Department of Family Relations and Child Development
College of Home Economics
Oklahoma State University - Stillwater

John C. McCullers
Department of Family Relations and Child Development
College of Home Economics
Oklahoma State University - Stillwater

To achieve its mission of helping children develop into useful and productive adult members of society, the 4-H program relies on a system of rewards within an atmosphere of competition. These rewards are intended to motivate young people to reach their full potential. They may range from a ribbon at a local county fair to a national college scholarship and thousands of dollars in premium money.

For many years, 4-H professionals have been evaluating and debating the benefits and possible adverse consequences of incentives and rewards in the 4-H program.1

American Way of Life

The reliance on competition and material rewards as a means of enhancing performance and motivation is not peculiar to 4-H. Indeed, it's central to our American way of life. If rewards and competition weren't generally effective for most people in most situations, they'd have been abandoned by 4-H and the rest of society many years ago.

On the contrary, the 4-H system of competition and rewards has proven to be highly effective for over 70 years. Any system that offers rewards in an atmosphere of competition is ideally suited to individuals who enjoy a competitive struggle and the chance to become "winners." Young men and women who traditionally attain the highest levels of achievement in the 4-H program are typically very successful in other aspects of life as well.

So, why is there a debate about the value of rewards? There's a belief that rewards do good things and that the greater the reward, the more likely we are to attain desired attitudes and performance. However, increasingly, literature shows that rewards may have some surprising and unexpected hidden costs or side effects.2

Characteristics of 4-H Members

Research shows that the development of achievement motivation in children is related to a number of family and child-rearing factors. For example, highe levels of achievement motivation are found among first-born children from families where parents are better educated than average, where the father's occupational status is higher than average, where the mother is employed outside of the home, and where the child's achievement efforts are encouraged by the family.3

We obtained similar findings in a recent survey of 155 teen leaders attending a District 4-H Leadership Conference in Oklahoma. Many of these adolescent leaders lived in rural areas (62.9%), and had lived in the same home an average of 11.2 years. Their parents were well-educated and had attended college, and a majority of the mothers were employed outside the home. Parents also had typically lived in the same home town since childhood (65.6%) and had been former 4-H Club members themselves (53 % ).

Many of these parents were 4-H Club leaders at the time of the survey (18.8% of the fathers and 60.7% of the mothers). These 4-Hers tended to be the first-born child (43%) and more than 90% had brothers and sisters in the 4-H program. A picture of great family stability and achievement orientation within a rural background represents the norm for teenage leaders in Oklahoma. This is quite a different picture from national demographic statistics on several of the same family variables (see Table 1).4

Table 1. Oklahoma vs. national family profile.    
4-H families
(N -155)
  ____________ ____________
  Rural (under 2,500)
62.9% 26.3%

  Length of time at
    current residence
11.2 years 5.0 years
  Fathers attended college
68.5% 37.9%

  Mothers attended college
73.6 28.7
  Mothers in the labor force
69.9 51.9

  Fathers in white-collar
64.2 42.9

Perceptions of Incentive System

How do 4-H teenagers and professionals view the present 4-H incentive system? To try to answer this question, we examined the nature and effectiveness of the 4-H incentive system as perceived by 4-H members and professionals.

Teen leaders and 4-H professionals were asked a series of similar questions. Responses were obtained from the 155 teen leaders described above. In addition, 42 professionals attending a National Association of Extension 4-H Agents Conference were surveyed in a companion study. The 4-H professionals were asked to respond to a 20-item instrument on the 4-H program, rating the items on a 5-point scale. The responses were then rank-ordered by identifying the three items that should be emphasized most and the three items that should be emphasized least. Overwhelmingly, 4-H professionals felt that parental involvement was critical for today's 4-H programming and success, and they identified a series of items related to rewards that should be emphasized less (see Table 2).

Table 2. Professionals' ranking of items
needing more and less emphasis.

Items needing more emphasis
First Choice  
Parental involvement 25.0%
Community involvement 23.1
Setting personal goals 15.4
Second choice  
Parental involvement 35.1
Setting personal goals 18.9
Non-competitive awards 10.8
Third choice  
Parental involvement 18.8
Setting personal goals 18.8
Cooperation 9.4
Items needing less emphasis
First Choice  
Competitive awards 47.8%
Standards 17.4
Premium money 8.7
Second choice  
Premium money 31.3
Standards 25.0
Competitive ribbons 12.5
Third choice  
Medals 28.6
Competitive ribbons 21.4
Standards 14.3

4-H professionals were asked, "What are the things boys and girls like most about 4-H?" A majority (54.8%) indicated that children like 4-H because they can socialize and interact with their peers. This is almost identical to the responses given by the sample of 4-H teen leaders, who were most likely to say, "It's fun to make friends and meet people." Very few 4-Hers (1.8%) and no 4-H professional mentioned winning awards or blue ribbons as an attractive feature of the 4-H program.

The professionals and the 4-Hers were asked another question: "What things do you like least about the 4-H program?" The 4-H professionals (76.5%) mentioned the awards and the competitive structure of the program, while 4-Hers divided their responses among such things as filling out report forms, not enough time to get things done, and the non-interest of some leaders and members. Thus, while blue ribbons have been traditionally used to enhance performance and motivation, the views expressed by these 4-H professionals and teen leaders raise questions about the effectiveness of these incentives.

Hidden Costs of Rewards

Are blue ribbons doing the things we expect them to do? Interestingly, research shows that incentives may undermine intrinsic interest turning an otherwise enjoyable activity into work5 and diminishing feelings of personal causation6 and selfdetermination.7 Other studies have shown that rewards may cause an individual to avoid difficult and challenging tasks.8 Also, material rewards may produce a form of developmental regression, causing individuals to perceive and approach problems from a more immature level.9


Although blue ribbons are used to motivate youth to stretch abilities and reach goals otherwise unattainable, they may also limit creativity and interest. The notion that blue ribbons serve a positive function of increasing motivation and performance may not always be true. Some people thrive on competition and rewards, but others don't.

Although 4-H has a philosophy of allowing all children to become winners, unfortunately, not all children can be winners. Some individuals never compete effectively for the blue ribbons of life. The idea of receiving "blue ribbons" (awards, praises, grades in school, salary increases, and other types of incentives) is something children and adults must deal with over a lifetime.

The fact that teenage leaders and professional 4-H agents both expressed reservation about the importance that should be attached to awards, and that these reservations find support in the results of recent research, suggests that the 4-H program and Extension have reason to carefully study the present reward structure in light of current 4-H philosophy and program objectives.


1. G. Kowitz and G. Dronberger, Awards, Competition and Motivation (Washington, D.C.: Extension Service, USDA, Committee on Incentives and Awards in 4-H, 1975).

2. M. R. Lepper and D. Greene, eds., The Hidden Costs of Rewards (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1978).

3. R. Helson, "Effects of Sibling Characteristics and Parental Values on Creative Interest and Achievement," Journal of Personality, XXXVI (December, 1968), 589-607.

4. U.S., Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstracts of the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983)

5. M. R. Lepper, and D. Greene, "Turning Play into Work: Effects of Adult Surveillance and Extrinsic Rewards on Children's Intrinsic Motivation," Journal of Personalityand Social Psychology, XXXI (September, 1975), 479-86.

6. R. De Charms, Personal Causation: The Internal Affective Determinants of Behavior (New York: Academic Press, 1968).

7. E. L. Deci, The Psychology of Self-Determination (Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books/D. C. Heath & Co., 1980).

8. S. Harter, "Pleasure Derived from Optimal Challenge and the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Children's Difficulty Level Choices," Child Development, XLIX (September, 1978), 788-99.

9. R. A. Fabes, J. D. Moran, III, and J. C. McCullers, "The Hidden Costs of Reward and WAIS Subscale Performance," American Journal of Psychology, LXXXXIV (September, 1981), 387-98.