Just Read: Extrinsic rewards aren’t always motivation reducers

This paper, out of the Center for Effective Organizations at USC, pokes holes in the oft-repeated refrain of behavior change masters, that rewarding people for tasks is ultimately ineffective because it reduces their intrinsic motivation – the “feeling of accomplishment, mastery and/or self-fullfillment.”

This has most significantly been popularized by Daniel Pink (@DanielPink) in his book Drive.

This paper offers a good review of studies that Pink referred to in his work, along with a lot of other data that indicate that motivating factors are more nuanced.

Social cues, supervisor behavior, feedback about performance and organizational climate can help employees see rewards as being associated with increased competence and self-control, thereby increasing intrinsic motivation. This means that sweeping statements about the negative effect of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation that are found in popular polemics go far beyond the evidence.

This point of view is actually similar to what I have said for a long time about physicians, which is that they will and do work hard when the work is clearly connected to better patient outcomes. When they work they’re doing is not clearly connected, this is where anxiety sets in. We just want to perform well for the people we serve…

In other behavioral economics stories that have been “modified” with data, it appears the income-ceiing theory of taxi drivers on rainy days should probably be removed from the repertoire…I’d review the paper here but @JasonCollins did a fine job on his blog.

Ted Eytan, MD