Do Rewards or Consequences Motivate us More?

Psychology Apr 16, 2021 6 min read
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while.  - Jeremy Bentham, British Philosopher (1748—1832)

Many factors motivate us; two of these are rewards and consequences. By identifying what exactly motivates us, we can further explore our identity and accomplish more.

Research answering this question

New York Hospital Study

wash hands
Photo by Mélissa Jeanty / Unsplash

New York Hospital studied the difference between rewards and consequences of motivate employees to wash their hands more often. In the first stage of the study they posted signs regarding the consequences of failing to wash their hands; and informing the employees of the video cameras installed at hand-washing stations. Despite all these steps, a surprising 90% did not remember to sanitize their hands before and after entering a patient's room.

In the next stage of the experiment, the hospital placed an electronic board in the hallway of each unit; the board would display a positive message (e.g. splendid job) in real time as an employee washed their hands; and raising that shift's hygiene score. Within four weeks, the frequency of hand-washing reached 90%.

Button Press Experiment

An explanation for this result is the action vs. stop response to stimuli. Our brains have learned that in most cases you need to take action to get a reward (e.g. you have to walk all the way to the refrigerator if you want a late-night snack, despite the bodies' laziness). Negative things, however, can sometimes stimulate a stop response. Our brains might think that by ignoring a threat, or staying put, we might bypass the consequences. One example of this is the freeze response to imminent danger (e.g. deer in the headlights).

Photo by Jp Valery / Unsplash

Neuroscientist Marc Guitart-Masip ran a study which supports this idea. He and his team studied the speed at which volunteers pressed a button and also monitored accidental presses. Volunteers pressed the button faster when offered a reward (a dollar), compared to when threatened with losing a dollar. Next, volunteers were told not to press the button. Volunteers performed better in the trial where a button press would lead to them losing a dollar; volunteers were more likely to accidentally press the button when offered a dollar as a rewarded.

You can apply this idea in your daily mindset. When envisioning goals, try not to picture the negative outcomes, but focus on the positive. Although the results of the studies may not completely accurately reflect real-life scenarios - avoiding picturing the negative outcomes will help in taking action towards your goal, rather than staying put.

The Root of Motivation

Although rewards seem to be better for motivation than consequences, there is still the issue whether either of them are the best option.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

Motivation in a general sense is the reason you want to do something. There are two fundamental types of motivation: extrinsic, and intrinsic. Rewards and consequences would fall into the extrinsic category because they are external factors motivating you. Intrinsic motivation however is the opposite: motivation from within.

The three major categories of intrinsic motivation

  • Relatedness - Wanting to connect with others (e.g. friendship, love, desire for social interactions)
  • Competence - Wanting to be the best you can at something. In some ways this is like the extrinsic motivation of looking for a reward: but in this case the reward is improving and becoming a better version of yourself.
  • Autonomy - This one's self explanatory, wanting to be in control of your life.

Most people would say that intrinsic motivation is much better than extrinsic motivation. Think about when you do a hobby you love, you don't think of it as hard work, but you enjoy it instead.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a framework describing human motivation.

"Humans are inherently motivated to self actualization - being able to express their full potential" - Abraham Maslow

His statement aligns with the competence category of intrinsic motivation. The problem is that too much extrinsic motivation can be harmful to your natural intrinsic motivation.

The problem with extrinsic motivation

A twenty-four year old woman counting dollar bills.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

One example of the harm of extrinsic motivation is what is termed the bonus effect:  rewards have a dual effect of both motivating you to finish something, and teaching you brain to prize that reward (while simultaneously decreasing the value of process to reach that goal). Educational psychologist John Nicholls once made fun of a Pizza Hut program that rewards pizzas to kids for reading books. He said that the program (in his words) produces "a lot of fat kids who don’t like to read".

A study done with adults showed similar results. Psychologists from Northwestern found that when using money as the reward for completing a task, the primary outcome was an increased excitement about money: even if they did not complete the task well enough to get paid (they also repeated this experiment with other types of material rewards such as raffle tickets: and found similar results). The psychologists also stated that a focus on the end goal resulted in a loss of performance quality: especially with creative or complex problem-solving tasks.

This problem is actually very relevant in life. Employers promising a bonus for good work might focus their employees' attention on the prize, instead of the work itself. In education, by labeling certain learning methods increasing test scores, you end up devaluing the learning method and the effort put in: while also elevating the importance of test scores.

And, in the long term, your brain's mindset will shift into valuing rewards over the process itself.

Do rewards motivate people?" the answer is "Sure—they motivate people to get rewards. - Psychology Today

An answer from Stoicism

(Note: I am not a stoic but find some of its principles applicable to everyday life)

One interesting philosophy presenting a fix to this problem is a Stoic principle. Stoic philosopher, Seneca wrote.

"In short, the wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her verdict upon me"

The goal is not the result, but the process. A Stoic metaphor for this is an archer. It is the archers job to train: choose the right bow and arrow: adjust for wind: and so on; but after the arrow leaves the string, you no longer have control over the arrow. Even though you prefer to hit the target, you accept that despite your preparation and training, factors outside your control (e.g. a sudden gust of wind) might decide the outcome.

An archer aiming at a

Because of this acceptance, you instead focus your effort on the process since it is in your control.

A tool you can use to focus on your intrinsic motivation

A tool I use and find helpful is Pause (made by the same developer as Freedom, an app and website blocker that runs on almost every platform). Pause is different from the typical website blocker in that instead of blocking a website, you reach a temporary green screen that forces you to pause for 10 seconds before choosing to enter the website. Pause allows your inherent intrinsic motivation to kick in to ask yourself is this website helpful or distracting.

So while using occasional rewards may be helpful for motivation, try to focus more on intrinsic motivations: to help bring greater enjoyment to your work and preserve your bodies naturally built in motivation over the long term.

Thank you for reading this article and I would love to hear your thoughts via email/twitter/instagram. Have a nice and productive day!


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