What Motivates Someone? Part 1: Rewards

What motivates someone to do well? This three part blog looks at the three different ways you could motivate someone: part 1 (reward), part 2 (looking into fear) and part 3 (focusing on personal success)

We will examine the pros and cons of each and see if one way is better than the others. First up, we look at the effects that rewarding behaviour has on motivation.

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The Story

There is a famous story that an old psychology professor would tell his students. An old man came home one day to find that the beloved flowers in his front garden had been trampled on. Determined to find the cause, he took watch the next day and quickly discovered the local children were using the flowerbed in his garden as a football goal. They loved playing and were so immersed in their game that they didn’t realise the damage they were causing. The old man decided to run an experiment to see if he could protect his flowers.

The old man went outside and beckoned the children over. He told them he also loved football and wanted to reward them for playing. He said that he would give each child five pounds for each day they played in his front garden. The children were delighted and the next day quickly collected their earnings. The old man said he may have over-estimated his funds; he said that the next day he would only be able to pay them three pounds each. Disappointed, but still eager to earn money, the children played the next day. Afterwards, the old man apologised and said he had run out of money and would be unable to pay for them to play the next day. The children, annoyed and frustrated with this, refused to play without pay and never turned up again. The old man was left to enjoy his flowers once again.


The Science behind rewards as a motivator

The moral of the story is that financial rewards can reduce someones intrinsic motivation. But is there any evidence of this? A recent study looked to answer this very question. Participants were asked to learn a set of Swahili-English word pairs. Half of the participants were offered a reward for doing so, the other half were not. After an initial study phase, participants were given the opportunity to study the words during their free time. The results? Participants who had not been offered a reward spent more time studying during their free period. The researchers behind this study suggested that the rewards had undermined and negatively impacted participants' intrinsic motivation and self-regulated learning behaviours.

This finding is echoed in research on paying for blood donations. Some countries pay for people to donate blood (Russia, China, Germany and America) whereas others don’t (France, Australia, England and Japan). New Zealand recently considered going from voluntary donations to paying for it. They found that 52% of their donors said they would stop donating if they were financially rewarded for doing so. Clearly, financial incentives have some impact on intrinsic motivation.


Cash for Grades?

This has interesting implications for how we help motivate young people, especially at school. 38% of students report being offered a financial incentive to do well in their A-levels, with some being offered up to £2000 for an A*. Other incentives have been known to include laptops and holidays. As well as parents offering these rewards, we have seen a growing increase in the use of end-of-year trips or proms as a reward for good behaviour.

The Sutton Trust investigated the effect of incentives on pupil attainment in Britain. Their randomised control trial involved over 10,000 pupils in 63 schools. They found that incentives, such as an end of year trip or an event, had some positive impact on classroom behaviour and effort, but had no significant impact on GCSE results. It wasn’t all bad news as pupils with low prior attainment made an average of 2 months extra progress.

Overall, they conclude that ‘the main messages seem to be that there are more effective methods for raising the attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals than offering them financial rewards. The effort and cost of running incentive schemes seems to run counter to the impact they have’.


Not So Clear Cut?

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of Think Like A Freak, think the debate around cash for grades is not so clear cut. They argue that research showing that cash doesn’t improve grades doesn’t prove that money is a bad motivator, just that those studies may not have been offering enough.

Consider the amount of daily effort that is required from a student to go from a D to a B in order to earn a £100 reward. This includes turning up to school more, paying more attention in each class and doing all their homework. When you break this down into an hourly rate, it can sound like a lot of work (especially to a disengaged student) for not much reward. They wonder: if students were offered £10,000, would this increased incentive impact on their behaviour and results?

Educational Psychologist, Jere Brophy agrees, suggesting 4 areas that should be considered when rewarding students:

  1. Offer rewards for meeting standards or skills that require a lot of practice or repetition
  2. Rewards can be motivating if students believe they have a chance to earn the rewards
  3. Rewards must be valued by students
  4. Rewards are most effective if delivered in a way that also provides meaningful feedback

Point 2 above is interesting. If someone sees someone else getting a 'better' reward, or feels that they can't earn the same reward, it can be very demotivating. This video of monkeys eating cucumbers and grapes is a great example of this:


Summary: The Pros and Cons

On the plus side, rewards and incentives for a particular behaviour can lead to increased effort; however, this comes at a cost, both financially and potentially on an individual’s intrinsic motivation. With budgets in many schools already stretched, and without wanting to hinder our students’ motivation, we are inclined to agree with the Sutton Trust finding that there are more effective ways to raise student motivation and attainment.

Part 2 of this blog series will look at the pros and cons of using fear as a motivator, so be sure to keep an eye out for it…
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