Mar 1, 2013

Painting Fences and Drawing For Rewards

Sometimes things can backfire on you. Your actions may have unintended consequences that you really didn't expect. Maybe you gave someone an incentive to do something and it didn't work. Or even worse: he did the exact opposite of what you wanted him to do. When an attempted solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse, economists call this the cobra effect (for an interesting podcast on the subject, click here). And as Daniel Pink notes in his book Drive. The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us something similar can happen when it comes to motivation:
Mechanisms designed to increase motivation can dampen it. Tactics aimed at boosting creativity can reduce it. Programs to promote good deeds can make them disappear. Meanwhile, instead of restraining negative behavior, rewards and punishments can often set it loose -- and give rise to cheating, addiction, and dangerously myopic thinking. (p. 35)
(More on the last part of that quote in later posts). Of course this doesn't always happen, but it's good to know the danger exists. As a classic example of this Pink takes the well-known story of Tom Sawyer having to whitewash his Aunt Polly's fence. At first it seems like a horrible punishment to him, but when his friend Ben comes along to mock him, he has a brilliant idea. He acts as if his dreary task is the most fun thing in the world and at first refuses to let Ben help him. Only after his friend gives up his apple for a chance to paint the fence, does he give in. Mark Twain, the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, then goes on to make a point. Here's how Daniel Pink quotes him:
Twain extracts a key motivational principle, namely "that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." He goes on to write: "There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign." In other words, rewards can perform a weird sort of behavioral alchemy: They can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. And by diminishing intrinsic motivation, they can send performance, creativity, and even upstanding behavior toppling like dominoes. (p. 36f)
Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence
So because Tom was able to convince his friend Ben that he was voluntarily whitewashing the fence because it was an enjoyable experience, something that was previously viewed as work now became play. In essence a good thing. The real problem arises when it's the other way around, i.e. when play becomes work because a reward for the accomplishment of the task has been introduced.

In Drive, Daniel Pink relates an experiment that shows the danger of using rewards when someone is already intrinsically motivated to do something. A group of psychologists watched a classroom of preschoolers to find out which of the children chose to spend their free play time drawing. Once identified, they divided these kids into three groups. The first was the "expected-award" group. Everyone in this group was shown a certificate that they would receive if they decided to draw. The second group was the "unexpected-award" group. These children were not shown any certificates before they started drawing, but received one at the end. And the last group was neither shown any certificates, nor did they get one if they chose to draw as well. A few weeks later, the researchers returned and watched these same children as the teachers handed out paper and markers during their free play time. Those who had previously been in the "unexpected-award" and the "no-award" groups drew with as much enthusiasm as before, but those who had been in the "expected-award" group showed a lot less interest and spent much less time drawing. For them play had been turned into work.

Interestingly enough, it wasn't the rewards themselves that made the activity a bore for these kids. It was only the contingent (if-then) rewards that had this effect. But why?
"If-then" rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy. Like the gentlemen driving carriages for money instead of fun, they're no longer fully controlling their lives. And that can spring a hole in the bottom of their motivational bucket, draining an activity of its enjoyment. (p. 38)
There are things in life where some kind of a reward is probably necessary in order to motivate someone to do it. But when a task is already enjoyable, promising a reward might be the worst thing you can do. So don't even think about paying me to write more blog posts like this one ;-)

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