Extrinsic Motivation A Poor Substitute For Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation A Poor Substitute For Intrinsic Motivation October 18, 2009

I’ve always had a personal and philosophical aversion to motivation that is rooted in extrinsic rewards.  I balk pretty heavily at the idea that moral actions can be motivated by the hope for rewards or the fear of punishment.  I am Kantian to the extent that I am firmly convinced that however right one’s action may be, it expresses a poor character if it’s motivation is in rewards and punishments that do not connect inherently to the value of the action itself.  (I’m not Kantian in that I have different notions about what sorts of value we should be motivated by that encompass more than just duty).

And both as a student and as a teacher I have always had little respect for grade obsession over the desire to learn for its own sake or to excel at a subject for the value to one’s character for its own sake.  So, I find the sorts of conclusions about the counter-productive character of extrinsic motivation in this study most congenial:

The children were then randomly assigned to one of the following conditions:

Expected reward. In this condition children were told they would get a certificate with a gold seal and ribbon if they took part.

Surprise reward. In this condition children would receive the same reward as above but, crucially, weren’t told about it until after the drawing activity was finished.

No reward. Children in this condition expected no reward, and didn’t receive one.

Each child was invited into a separate room to draw for 6 minutes then afterwards either given their reward or not depending on the condition. Then, over the next few days, the children were watched through one-way mirrors to see how much they would continue drawing of their own accord. The graph below shows the percentage of time they spent drawing by experimental condition:

As you can see the expected reward had decreased the amount of spontaneous interest the children took in drawing (and there was no statistically significant difference between the no reward and surprise reward group). So, those who had previously liked drawing were less motivated once they expected to be rewarded for the activity. In fact the expected reward reduced the amount of spontaneous drawing the children did by half. Not only this, but judges rated the pictures drawn by the children expecting a reward as less aesthetically pleasing.

Read more about the study and other related research which informs psychologists’ notions about what explains it.

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