Rewards and Motivation

Are we motivated by rewards?  Conventional practice would say “yes”, but science would say otherwise.

In the laboratory, rats are rewarded with food.  In the classroom the top students are rewarded with A grades, and in the workplace, the best workers get the raises.

We trust this system of reward, because it has been drilled into us and as leaders we trust that rewards will draw out the best performance.

However, there is significant research to indicate that this may not be the case.  Psychologists have found that rewards can actually lower performance levels, especially when the performance involves creativity.

Intrinsic motivation is when we do something because we feel it is worth doing for its own sake.

Extrinsic motivation comes from an external reward, like money, awards, praise or winning a contest.

There is a body of research that shows that our intrinsic motivation for doing a task, typically declines when we are rewarded for doing it.  If the reward is seen as the reason to engage in an activity, that activity will be viewed as less enjoyable in its own right.

The recognition that rewards can be counter-productive is based on a variety of studies, which have found for example that young children who are rewarded for drawing are less likely to draw on their own that are children who draw just for the fun of it; teenagers offered rewards for playing word games enjoy the games less and do not do as well as those who play with no rewards; and employees who are praised for meeting a manager’s expectations suffer a drop in motivation.

Much of the research on creativity and motivation has been performed by Theresa Amabile, associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University.  In a study conducted in 1985, Amabile asked 72 creative writers at Brandeis and at Boston University to write poetry.  Some students then were given a list of extrinsic reasons for writing, such as impressing teachers, making money and getting into graduate school, and were asked to think about their own writing with respect to these reasons.  Others were given a list of intrinsic reasons: the enjoyment of playing with words, satisfaction from self-expression, and so forth.  A third group was not given any list.  All were then asked to do more writing.

The results were clear.  Students given the extrinsic reasons not only wrote less creatively than the others, as judged by 12 independent poets, but the quality of their work dropped significantly.  Amabile noted “The more complex the activity, the more it’s hurt by extrinsic reward,” she said.

But other research shows that artists are by no means the only ones affected.

In one study, by James Gabarino, showed that girls in the fifth and sixth grades tutored younger children much less effectively if they were promised free movie tickets for teaching well.  Tutors working for the reward took longer to communicate ideas, got frustrated more easily, and did a poorer job in the end than those who were not rewarded.

This research refutes the belief that money is an effective and even necessary way to motivate people and the assumption that any activity is more likely to occur if it is rewarded.

But Kenneth McGraw, associate professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi, cautions that “the basic principles of reinforcement and rewards certainly work, but in a restricted context” — restricted, essentially, to tasks that are not especially interesting.

Researchers offer several explanations for their surprising findings about rewards and performance.

Firstly, rewards encourage people to focus narrowly on a task, to do it as quickly as possible and to take few risks. “If they feel that ‘this is something I have to get through to get the prize,’ they’re going to be less creative,” Amabile said.

Secondly, people come to see themselves as being controlled by the reward.  They feel less autonomous, and this may interfere with performance.

Finally, extrinsic rewards can erode intrinsic interest.  People who see themselves as working for money, approval or competitive success find their tasks less pleasurable, and therefore do not do them as well.

The last explanation reflects 15 years of work by Edward Deci. at the University of Rochester.  In 1971, Deci showed that “money may work to buy off one’s intrinsic motivation for an activity” on a long-term basis.  Ten years later, Deci and his colleagues demonstrated that trying to beat others has the same effect.  Students who competed to solve a puzzle quickly were less likely than those who were not competing to keep working at it once the experiment was over.

Not all rewards have the same effect.  Being paid an hourly wage in the workplace usually does not reduce intrinsic motivation.  It is only when the rewards are based on performing a given task or doing a good job at it (i.e. receiving a bonus) that the problem develops.

In a 1982 study, Stanford psychologist Mark L. Lepper showed that any task, no matter how enjoyable it once seemed, would be devalued if it were presented as a means rather than an end.  He told a group of preschoolers they could not engage in one activity they liked until they first took part in another. Although they had enjoyed both activities equally, the children came to dislike the task that was a prerequisite for the other.

It works the same way in the office.  In a study that involved corporate employees it was found that when feedback is experienced as controlling, the effect on motivation is similar to that of payment.  Those employees who were told “Good, you’re doing as you should” were “significantly less intrinsically motivated than those who received feedback informationally.”

There’s a difference is between saying, “I’m giving you this reward because I recognize the value of your work” and “You’re getting this reward because you’ve lived up to my standards.”

To maintain the intrinsic motivation it’s important to gauge how a reward is experienced.  If we come to view ourselves as working to get something, we will no longer find that activity worth doing in its own right.

Intrinsic motivation is typically the strongest and most enduring kind of motivation.  Often times, the goals that are intrinsically motivated are the ones people spend their whole lives striving to achieve.  It’s the hardest motivation to manufacture, so when intrinsic motivation exists, we should avoid squashing it.

The TED video below from researcher and author Dan Pink talks about this in further detail.

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