We use incentive rewards as a form of persuasion in every facet of our lives, but when we use rewards the wrong way, we can get ourselves in trouble. Find out how rewards really work and become more influential in your daily life.
Rewards can make fun activities less enjoyable
Have you ever had a hobby, something you would do every day of the week for free? And have you ever been offered a financial incentive to do that hobby for someone else? Chances are you didn’t enjoy the activity as much as you did before being paid for it.
Behavioral scientists tried this very scenario with a group of children. Several preschool age children, who regularly spent their time drawing, were offered a reward for doing so. Some children were asked to draw in order to receive an award (similar to receiving payment), while others were given a surprise award after choosing to draw on their own. When the experiment was over, the children who had been ‘paid’ to draw were less likely to choose drawing as their playtime activity in the future. They essentially lost interest after being ‘paid’ to draw.
Simple and complex tasks should be rewarded differently
What this study and others like it have found is that rewards need to be used in specialized ways depending on the task and the behaviors we want to see in the future.
A reward that is conditional narrows our view. This type of reward is beneficial if you need a person to perform one simple activity and don’t require that they repeat that activity (without reward) in the future. For example, if you need a group of subjects to complete a survey, paying them a reward for completion would be beneficial. If you want a teenager to wash the dishes, paying them to do so will encourage them to complete the task in the short-term, but don’t expect them to wash dishes on their own in the future.
A random, unexpected reward reinforces behavior. For complex or creative tasks, conditional incentives can actually hinder performance. The best way to reward for these types of behaviors is after work has been completed, and making sure that the reward is not conditional (expected as a payment for the activity).
Scientists don’t have a definitive answer for this phenomenon, but they think it has something to do with intrinsic motivation. When we’re motivated to perform an action without a reward, we feel a sense of autonomy. Receiving payment for that action takes away our autonomy, but being rewarded after the fact does not have the same negative effect.
How can you become more influential?
By using incentives appropriately you can inspire others to increase the behaviors you want to see more of. An unexpected gift for a job well-done or public recognition after a project is completed can go a long way.
At home, taking your kids for ice cream (sometimes) after they complete their chores without being asked can reinforce their good chore-completing behavior. And treating your spouse to breakfast in bed for being nice to the in-laws might make the next holiday dinner less of a drama and more of a sit-com.
Source: Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Penguin Group, 2011.
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