In 1973, three researchers performed a study on motivation that has become one of the classics in the field (1). During this study they spent several days secretly watching a classroom of preschoolers through one-way mirrors and identified the children who chose to spend their free time drawing. They then separated these children into three groups.
The first was the expected-award group. The researchers showed each of these children a "Good Player" certificate, adorned with a fancy blue ribbon and the child's name, and asked the child if they wanted to draw to receive the award. They then gave the cihild a "Good Player" certificate at the end of the session.
The second was the unexpected-award group. The researchers simply asked each of these children if they wanted to draw and did not offer them a "Good Player" certificate. However if the child decided to draw, the researchers still handed the child a surprise "Good Player" certificate at the end of the session.
The third was the no-award group. The researchers asked each of these children if they wanted to draw, but neither offered nor gave the child a "Good Player" certificate at the end of the session.
Two weeks later, the researchers returned to the classroom and set out paper and markers during the preschool's free time period. They again secretly observed the preschoolers. Strangely and against the predictions of the researchers, while the unexpected-award and no-award groups showed just as much enthusiasm and spent just as much time drawing as before, the children in the expected-award group showed much less enthusiasm and spent much less time drawing compared to before.
Somehow, their former experience with an expected reward had undermined the motivations of these children to engage in an activity that they had previously enjoyed. The expected reward had damaged their inherent interest in drawing.
Rewards Versus Motivations
Before proceeding, let's compare and contrast rewards with motivations.
Rewards are goals generated by a third party that are designed to stimulate an individual into doing something that is of interest to that third party. Crucially, rewards are extrinsically generated by a third party.
Motivations are goals generated by the individual that are designed to stimulate that individual into identifying and pursuing things that are of interest to that individual. Crucially, motivations are intrinsically generated by the individual.
The relationship between expected rewards and motivations is a funny one (2). Expected rewards can be useful in motivating people when their baseline needs have not yet been met - for example, if the rewards are food on the table and a place to sleep then a person is quite often motivated to achieve them. Therefore below these baseline needs, expected rewards and motivations are aligned. However, once the baseline needs have been achieved it turns out that additional expected rewards such as higher salaries, monetary bonuses, and prizes do not stimulate a person's motivation in any way as demonstrated by the preschooler study. Rather unexpectedly, they do the opposite of what they are intended to do - the rewards undermine the motivations of that person. The explanation behind this phenomenon is that expected, "if-then" rewards require individuals to forfeit some of their autonomy, and no longer being in control of one's life inevitably turns play into work, draining an activity of its enjoyment (2). The bottom line is that once the baseline needs have been met, extrinsic rewards kill intrinsic motivations.
Furthermore, when an individual's motivations for an activity are undermined by expected rewards, numerous studies show that performance on that activity suffers (2). In one such study during the 1960s a group of researchers surveyed students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago regarding their attitudes towards work and whether they were more driven by extrinsic rewards or intrinsic motivations. Over two decades later in the 1980s, another researcher followed up on the students and assessed how their careers were progressing (3). Strikingly, the less a student had been driven by extrinsic rewards during art school, the more success they had achieved in professional art later in life - thus, those artists who had been intrinsically motivated to paint and sculpt and didn't care that much about extrinsic rewards ended up receiving more extrinsic rewards later in life anyways.
Forget About Rewards - Follow Motivations
Anyone who has experience with babies knows that all babies are inherently curious and intrinsically motivated. Yet at some point in life - perhaps when a person decides to "grow up" - these motivations are often suppressed in the quest for rewards like a higher salary, a monetary bonus, or a prize. Frankly, this is against our true nature. We are at our best not when we chase extrinsically generated rewards, but when we pursue intrinsically generated motivations.
In 1976 there came a film called Rocky, written by and starring the actor Sylvester Stallone (4). Stallone was having trouble in his acting career before this film came out and he decided to write a film script about a struggling boxer with whom he personally identified. After writing the script, Stallone tried to sell it to a number of studios with the idea of playing the lead role himself and he eventually found one that offered him $350,000 US dollars for the script rights, but the studio wanted to cast someone else for the lead role. Stallone refused to sell unless he played the lead character, and after a substantial budget cut, the studio relented. Rocky ended up becoming the highest grossing film of 1976, launching Stallone into worldwide fame. One wonders what might have happened if he had accepted the extrinsic reward instead of holding onto his intrinsic motivations to play a character that was a part of him.
So once you've covered your baseline needs, forget about the higher salary, the monetary bonus, or the prize. Stick to what motivates you, listen to that inner fire, reward or no...
...and go the distance.
Solace (inspired by Simon Phillips).
References (1) Lepper M, Greene D, Nisbett R. 1973. Undermining Children's Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards: A Test of the "Overjustification" Hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28(1), 129-137. (2) Pink DH. 2011. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books. (3) Carney JK. 1986. Intrinsic Motivation and Artistic Success (unpublished dissertation). University of Chicago. (4) Nelson MR. 2013. American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Greenwood.