The Toxic Effects of Rewards

This post is based upon research on the science of rewards and enjoyment. Check out my other posts which make scientific research on the human mind understandable.

Imagine I were to ask you to do something you already enjoy.

It doesn’t really matter what it is, but let’s say for the moment that you rather enjoy drawing. Now, I sit you down with a shiny new box of pencils and tell you to go wild and start drawing. So far so good: you like drawing, as you told me, and you happily sketch for a good long six minutes. At the end of the allotted time I surprise you with a reward: a chocolate bar for your efforts (assuming, again, that you like chocolate). My first question for you: do you think that the surprise reward would have an impact on how much you wanted to draw?

If you’re anything like the children studied by Mark R. Lepper and David Greene from the University of Michigan, then the answer is “no.” It’s probably not surprising to find that since you already enjoyed drawing, the surprise reward did little to impact the desire to draw in the future. After all, you had drawn in the past without receiving any explicit rewards; the sudden appearance of the chocolate bar was nothing more than the proverbial “cherry on top.”

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You don’t really need any good reason to draw—you’ve not been trying to justify your hobby to anyone, you’ve just been doing it because you like doing it. That much is straightforward. We like to do certain things simply because we enjoy them. We don’t require any particular outcome.

But what if we are made to expect a reward for our labors? What if, before you start drawing, I tell you exactly how much chocolate you’ll receive for how much time spent drawing? The amount of chocolate will be the same as in the previous scenario where I surprised you, and you’ll be doing the same activity.

The facts of the task and the outcome have not changed at all. All that has changed is that I have made you aware before the activity of what your reward will be. At this point, I can predict that something strange will start happening: you’ll start drawing for shorter periods of time and enjoying your time spent drawing even less.

What has happened? Surely my chocolate bars have not changed the nature of the activity itself, delicious though they may be. What they have done is to turn your encounter with me and with drawing into a transaction. As it turns out, once we focus on the material outcome of the experience it takes the focus away from the activity itself—and kills the implicit enjoyment in the process.

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