(Cover Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash)
(This series of posts is based on journalist and author Dan Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” available here. Here is Part 2.)
At the core of Motivation 2.0 are 2 simple ideas: “Rewarding an activity will get you more of it. Punishing an activity will get you less of it.” (Pink 34)
As we saw in the last post, the Motivation 2.0. model explains well some of our psychology, and can be useful particularly when applied in the context of work that is characterized by algorithmic (i.e. repetitive, automatic) tasks.
However, the model is incomplete; it fails to explain other significant aspects of our psychology, notably what Pink calls our ‘third drive’, the area of intrinsic motivation.
Most importantly, though, problems arise when the Motivation 2.0 model is assumed to be all-encompassing, and is applied in situations when it is not appropriate to do so.
In fact, Pink argues that past a certain threshold*, the ‘Carrot and Stick’ model actually achieves the opposite of its intended aims. For example, mechanisms used to increase motivation within this model actually decrease it, programs used to raise creativity reduce it, and measures implemented to promote good behavior usually lead to bad behavior.
(*Note: the ‘threshold’ Pink mentions here refers to the baseline rewards any one person has in the context of their work. For example, in North America baseline rewards may include salary, some benefits and a few perks. Pink is saying that the motivational principles we’re talking about here apply only once this basic threshold is met (35).)
How does this make sense?
First, a little story.
In his book ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, Mark Twain writes of a time young Tom is made to whitewash his aunt’s 810-square-foot-fence, an unpleasant task to say the least. As he begins his job, a friend of his passes by and mocks him for the work he has to do. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Tom starts convincing his friends that his task, what his friends think is boring ‘work’, is actually something Tom enjoys. Interestingly, when he does this his friends actually pay to do the job for him. Tom then sits watching them work, smiling to himself.
This story highlights a key principle, Twain says: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”.
In other words, any and all ‘work’ can turn into ‘play’, and any ‘play’ can turn into ‘work’, given the right rewards. This is what’s known as the ‘Sawyer effect’.
Having established this, we can now understand the 7 reasons why the ‘Carrot and Stick’ model (often) does not work:
1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
The Sawyer effect shows that certain type of rewards can significantly reduce the intrinsic motivation of a task, effectively turning something that was intrinsically enjoyable (i.e. play), into something that isn’t (i.e. work).
Take a 1978 study by Mark Lepper and David Green for example. They studied preschoolers who liked to draw:
“They divided the kids into three groups. The first group of kids was told that they’d get a reward — a nice blue ribbon with their name on it — if they continued to draw. The second group wasn’t told about the rewards but was given a blue ribbon after drawing. (This was the “unexpected reward” condition.) Finally, the third group was the “no award” condition. They weren’t even told about the blue ribbons.
After two weeks of reinforcement, the scientists observed the preschoolers during a typical period of free play. Here’s where the results get interesting: The kids in the “no award” and “unexpected award” conditions kept on drawing with the same enthusiasm as before. Their behavior was unchanged. In contrast, the preschoolers in the “award” group now showed much less interest in the activity. Instead of drawing, they played with blocks, or took a nap, or went outside. The reason was that their intrinsic motivation to draw had been contaminated by blue ribbons; the extrinsic reward had diminished the pleasure of playing with crayons and paper.” (Lehrer, 2010)
Pink explains that it was a specific type of reward that reduced the kids’ intrinsic motivation, i.e. contingent ‘if-then’ rewards.
These rewards reduce intrinsic motivation because they force people to forfeit some of their autonomy (38). When someone offers us a reward for something we intrinsically enjoy doing, we feel as if we are no longer pursuing the activity because of reasons we alone are responsible for or are in control of. In other words, we start to feel as though we are doing the activity for the rewards and not for the intrinsic enjoyment of it, making it significantly less enjoyable.
2. They can diminish performance.
According to many studies, extrinsic rewards can also cause a reduction in performance.
One such study was performed by four economists, led by Dan Ariely. These economists set out to test the effect of extrinsic rewards on performance. They went to Madurai, India and recruited 87 participants, asking them to play several games requiring motor skills, creativity, or concentration.
They gave the participants different rewards for reaching certain outcomes. One third of the group earned a small amount (4 rupees), another third received a moderate amount (40 rupees) and the last third received a large amount (400 rupees).
As it turned out, the last group (one with the highest reward) performed the worst out of three. The conclusion: “We find that financial incentives […] can result in negative impact on overall performance.” (qtd. in Pink 41)
3. They can crush creativity.
A simple, yet effective behavioral science experiment devised by psychologist Karl Duncker proves this.
You sit at a table next to a wooden wall and the experimenter gives you a candle, some tacks and a book of matches. You are asked to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax doesn’t drip on the table.
Think about it for a second; what would you do?
The problem requires a bit of creativity to solve: you need to think beyond what is generally understood to be the main function of a container in this situation.
Psychologist Sam Glucksberg sought to find out what would be the effect of extrinsic rewards on the time required to complete the problem. In one group, he gave no reward (he was testing them to establish an ‘average time’ for the task; in another group, he offered 5$ to whoever could finish within the top 25% of people being tested, and 20$ for the person with the fastest time. The study showed that it took the participants of the second group an average of 3 and a half minutes longer than the first group. How can this result be explained?
Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus. They are useful in situations that involve a clear path to a goal like algorithmic tasks, but not in ones that require thinking outside the box (i.e. involving problem-solving, conceptual thinking, inventiveness, etc.) like heuristic tasks (Pink 46).
If you’re like most businesses today, much of the work your employees perform involve heuristic tasks.
Are you motivating them with extrinsic rewards? You may want to rethink that strategy.
To be continued…
Lehrer, Jonah. “Will I?” Cognitive Daily, 12 July 2010, scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/07/12/will-i/.
Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Canongate, 2010.