Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator
Creativity and intrinsic interest diminish if task is done for gain
By Alfie Kohn
In the laboratory, rats get Rice Krispies. In the classroom the top students get A's, and in the factory or office the best workers get raises. It's an article of faith for most of us that rewards promote better performance.
But a growing body of research suggests that this law is not nearly as ironclad as was once thought. Psychologists have been finding that rewards can lower performance levels, especially when the performance involves creativity.
A related series of studies shows that intrinsic interest in a task -- the sense that something is worth doing for its own sake -- typically declines when someone is rewarded for doing it.
If a reward -- money, awards, praise, or winning a contest -- comes to be seen as the reason one is engaging in an activity, that activity will be viewed as less enjoyable in its own right.
With the exception of some behaviorists who doubt the very existence of intrinsic motivation, these conclusions are now widely accepted among psychologists. Taken together, they suggest we may unwittingly be squelching interest and discouraging innovation among workers, students and artists.
The recognition that rewards can have counter-productive effects is based on a variety of studies, which have come up with such findings as these: 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. 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 paper published early last year on her most recent study, she reported on experiments involving elementary school and college students. Both groups were asked to make "silly" collages. The young children were also asked to invent stories.
The least-creative projects, as rated by several teachers, were done by those students who had contracted for rewards. "It may be that commissioned work will, in general, be less creative than work that is done out of pure interest," Amabile said.
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 (external) 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. Rewards, Amabile says, have this destructive effect primarily with creative tasks, including higher-level problem-solving. "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, girls in the fifth and sixth grades tutored younger children much less effectively if they were promised free movie tickets for teaching well. The study, by James Gabarino, now president of Chicago's Erikson Institute for Advanced Studies in Child Development, showed that 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.
Such findings call into question the widespread belief that money is an effective and even necessary way to motivate people. They also challenge the behaviorist assumption that any activity is more likely to occur if it is rewarded. Amabile says her research "definitely refutes the notion that creativity can be operantly conditioned."
But Kenneth McGraw, associate professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi, cautions that this does not mean behaviorism itself has been invalidated. "The basic principles of reinforcement and rewards certainly work, but in a restricted context" -- restricted, that is, to tasks that are not especially interesting.
Researchers offer several explanations for their surprising findings about rewards and performance.
First, 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 hve to get through to get the prize,' the're going to be less creative," Amabile said.
Second, people come to see themselves as being controlled by the reward. They feel less autonomous, and this may interfere with performance. "To the extent one's experience of being self-determined is limited," said Richard Ryan, associate psychology professor at the University of Rochester, "one's creativity will be reduced as well."
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 Ryan's mentor at the University of Rochester, Edward Deci. 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 best 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.
Control plays role
There is general agreement, however, that not all rewards have the same effect. Offering a flat fee for participating in an experiment -- similar to 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 -- analogous to piece-rate payment and bonuses, respectively -- that the problem develops.
The key, then, lies in 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.
There is an old joke that nicely illustrates the principle. An elderly man, harassed by the taunts of neighborhood children, finally devises a scheme. He offered to pay each child a dollar if they would all return Tuesday and yell their insults again. They did so eagerly and received the money, but he told them he could only pay 25 cents on Wednesday. When they returned, insulted him again and collected their quarters, he informed them that Thursday's rate would be just a penny. "Forget it," they said -- and never taunted him again.
Means to an end
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 should not be surprising that when verbal feedback is experienced as controlling, the effect on motivation can be similar to that of payment. In a study of corporate employees, Ryan found that those 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, Ryan says, 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."
A different but related set of problems exists in the case of creativity. Artists must make a living, of course, but Amabile emphasizes that "the negative impact on creativity of working for rewards can be minimized" by playing down the significance of these rewards and trying not to use them in a controlling way. Creative work, the research suggests, cannot be forced, but only allowed to happen.
Alfie Kohn, a Cambridge, MA writer, is the author of "No Contest: The Case Against Competition," recently published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA. ISBN 0-395-39387-6.
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