Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

You paid me – I must have hated it

October 11th, 2010

Pay attention, everyone! Today we have a quiz. A very short, easy quiz.

Let’s say you’d like the people in your organization to participate in a new activity: cooperate more, join the company exercise program, try a new workplace technique, you name it. Which of the following would be most likely to get them to do it and keep doing it?

a)    Tell them how much fun it willl be

b)    Pay them each time they do it

c)    Praise them effusively for doing it

If you read the title of this post, you probably guessed that (b) isn’t the answer. Surprisingly enough, however, neither is (c). It turns out that both of these can actually lower people’s interest in your activity, so unless you’re being really annoying about it, stick with (a).*

To prove I is not thick at Warneford, Highworth, Swindon, WiltsIt’s counterintuitive, I know. There’s a general belief that rewards are a useful way to change behaviour, and in many circumstances that’s true. The problem is that rewards change the way we view the activity we’re being rewarded for – and sometimes that means we stop wanting to do it.

The classic study showing this was done by Mark Lepper and David Greene in 1973. They introduced a new activity – drawing with coloured markers – into a preschool classroom and identified those three- to five-year-olds who used the markers most. Over the next 2 weeks, these children were each given a chance to draw with the markers again, but under varying conditions. One randomly chosen group were told before they started drawing that they would receive a fancy Good Player Award in return for drawing. Another group weren’t told in advance, but also received Good Player Awards after drawing. A third group (the control group) didn’t get the awards and didn’t know about them.

All the children drew as requested, but the experimenters weren’t really interested in that. What they wanted to know was how interested the kids would be in drawing afterwards. What they found a couple of weeks later was that the kids who drew while expecting a reward wanted to use the markers for only half as long as the kids who received no award or an unexpected award. And these were all kids who initially enjoyed drawing.

There is some disagreement among psychologists about why this happens. Some say it’s due to the “overjustification effect”, which basically says that when we get a reward for something we enjoy doing, we stop doing it for the enjoyment and start doing it for the reward. Others say that being rewarded for something implies that it is unpleasant, since unpleasant activities are usually the ones associated with rewards.

Whatever goes on in our minds, the effect has been demonstrated in dozens of different studies involving both adults and children. Being rewarded lowered adults’ interest in doing puzzles. Children who were praised or rewarded for finishing a glass of a new yogurt drink liked it less a week later than kids who weren’t praised or rewarded. A 1999 review of 128 studies in this field showed that the effect applied to a wide range of activities from smoking cessation to interest in reading.

It doesn’t only apply to activities people enjoy, either. In his book, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman described a study he performed a few years ago:

“Two groups of people were asked to take part in an experiment spending all afternoon picking up litter in a park. Participants were told that they were taking part in an experiment examining how best to persuade people to look after their local parks. One group was paid handsomely for their time, while the other was given only a small amount of cash. After an hour or so of backbreaking and tedious work, everyone rated the degree to which they had enjoyed the afternoon… The average enjoyment rating of the handsomely paid group was a measly 2 out of 10, while the modestly paid group’s average rating proved to be a whopping 8.5.”

Obviously, rewards aren’t going away, and they still have a place. However, if you’re trying to change people’s long-term behaviour, especially with respect to activities that can be enjoyable in themselves, rewards may be counterproductive. I’d love to hear about times when rewards have and haven’t worked for you.

*There is no prize for getting the answer right. You probably guessed that.

2 comments on 'You paid me – I must have hated it'

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  1. Oh my god, this totally applies to writing! When I was a kid, I could sit for hours writing stories. I would rather write stories than do almost anything else. Then, I majored in English in college and suddenly creative writing was anything but fun. It was pressure.

    I’m working on my book now, and it’s the same situation. I really have to remind myself how much fun it is in order to overcome the pressure to meet other people’s expectations.


    Carol Reply:

    I completely empathize — I did tons of creative writing as a kid. When I became a full-time medical writer, writing became deadlines. Not fun.

    On the plus side, since I’ve been writing this blog I’ve rediscovered some of the joy of writing, so perhaps it really is possible to retrain our brains to associate writing (or anything else) with its original pleasure. We can hope!


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