Well-Being//

The Science Behind How Rewards Are Actually De-motivating

The idea is you will be motivated to get the reward, which will motivate you to complete the task. Unfortunately, science says almost the exact opposite will happen.

tomertu/Shutterstock
tomertu/Shutterstock

Motivation is all over the media these days. It seems as though everyone has tips and tricks about how to get and stay motivated. But a lot of the information out there is misleading and sometimes might even result in you being less motivated.

My day job involves changing individual and organizational behavior to align with best practices (mostly in health and public health) and my passion project is about motivating and supporting working moms to create a work-life balance that aligns with their values – so I think about behavior change and motivation every single day.

It can be so discouraging and frustrating to leave an amazing day where I trained nurses and doctors about how to motivate others to better implement evidence, only get on the subway, open my phone, and see all of this misinformation about motivation flying around.

For example, one of the most common pieces of advice is to reward yourself when you finish a task. The idea is you will be motivated to get the reward, which will motivate you to complete the task. Unfortunately, science says almost the exact opposite will happen.

If you are motivated to complete a task because of the reward, it might change your behavior for a while, but in the long term, you are actually less likely to do that task. Giving yourself rewards for completing a task might help motivate you that one time, but if the goal is to be motivated to do this tasks over and over, rewards make you want to do it less.

You are probably wondering, “how can rewards be de-motivating?”

The spectrum of motivation: Are you focusing on extrinsic instead of intrinsic motivation?

Motivation experts, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, developed a self-determination theory, which describes how and why people are motivated. Motivation exists on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, people are extrinsically motivated (their motivation comes from a reward or punishment). Next, people are motivated by a sense of guilt or feeling they “should” do something; this is called external motivation.

Further along the spectrum, people are motivated because they believe an activity aligns with their values, this is known as internal motivation. At the other end of the spectrum, people are intrinsically motivated, in other words, they are motivated because they love doing the activity.

Essentially there are 4 points along this motivation spectrum:

  • Extrinsic (rewards or punishment);
  • External (guilt);
  • Internal (aligned with values);
  • Intrinsic (you love doing it).

How extrinsic motivation can work for you in the short-term and against you over time

If you are not feeling motivated, you might have been doing a task for a reward or fear of punishment, which may have worked for a while, but doesn’t seem as motivating anymore. This kind of extrinsic motivation can change behavior pretty dramatically in the short-term, but it’s unsustainable over time.

A great example of this is kids learning to read (can you tell I have a 5-year-old?). Imagine you tell one kid (let’s call him Jack) that you will give him a sticker for every book he reads – extrinsic motivation. With another kid (Liam), you tell him to read the books that he loves whenever he wants – since most kids get pleasure from reading, this is intrinsically motivating. Research shows that Jack (extrinsically motivated) is going to read way more books than Liam (intrinsically motivated) early on. This is the reason that so many schools have these sticker reading programs – it gets kids to read more.

What’s way more interesting and important is what happens over time. Jack will probably read more books than Liam. But during this time, Jack’s mind is equating reading with the reward. Even though he once loved to read for the sake of reading, eventually his brain rewires so that he likes reading because of the reward he gets. Once that happens, he won’t want to read unless he gets a reward, and the rewards will need to get bigger and bigger over time to keep him motivated. Meanwhile, Liam continues to enjoy reading, because he likes the act of reading, not because he gets a reward.

By trying to motivate yourself with a reward, you are shifting your motivation towards the extrinsic end of the spectrum. If it’s a one-time unpleasant task, go for it. But if you want to sustain your motivation, you might want to think again.

How can you shift to being more internally or intrinsically motivated?

If you are feeling stuck in your motivation, think about how this task aligns with your values (i.e., internal motivation) or is related to activities that you love doing for the sake of the activity (i.e., intrinsic motivation), not for the end product (i.e., external motivation)?

Exercise is such a great example for this spectrum. If you give yourself a reward for exercising, your brain thinks the benefit of exercising is to get the reward. Instead, can you focus on how much you enjoy exercising, like the act of running and feeling your feet hit the sidewalk? If you don’t really enjoy the activity, could you think about the ways that exercise aligns with your values and priorities – you want to be and feel fit. If that’s still a stretch, start small and shift to doing it because you “should” – you know that your current lifestyle is making you at risk for a host of health problems.

How can you get and stay motivated?

  1. Pick a task you have been struggling with and are not very motivated to do.
  2. Where does it fit on the spectrum?
  3. Create a plan to move down the spectrum of motivation.
  4. Talk to people about motivation – you would be surprised by how many people struggle with motivation and the more people on board, the better you can be about holding each other accountable.
  5. Think about when are you using rewards or punishments to drive behavior (for yourself, your employees)? Is there another approach you could be using?

Good luck getting (and staying) motivated!

Originally published on Ladders.

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