By Marc Resnick
There was a great story on the Moth radio hour last night that illustrates why we shouldn’t use financial incentives to motivate creative or enjoyable activities. They only work (long term) on tasks that are done best through brute force and rote effort.
What made this story exceptional is that it was about monkeys in a research lab. All of the research I have read in this area looked at people. Some looked at students and some at workers. Some were in the US and some in Asia. But they were all people. It turns out, our simian cousins have the same reaction.
The researcher had the monkey play a game. It was fun for the monkey. AND, the monkey got a treat for playing. He got his favorite food instead of the regular stuff. But after pairing the game with the treat for several repetitions, it wasn’t fun anymore. The monkey just wanted the treat. So he played the game to get the treat, and wouldn’t play if there was no treat. After trying and trying and trying, eventually they got the monkey to play it again, but it was lethargically and methodically and he clearly wasn’t having any fun anymore. Shifting the monkey’s attention to the link between the treat and the game eliminated the link between fun and the game.
That research I was referring to earlier found this same effect in people. Whether you are talking about motivating workers to do their job better or students to study harder or people to play sports harder, providing tangible incentives (with people this is usually money) ruins the intangible incentives like fun and enjoyment. And without intrinsic motivation, people can do brute force and effort, but not be creative or have fun. This is a very important lesson for managers, entrepreneurs, parents, and pretty much everyone at some point.