The Common Negative Effects of Rewards on Inborn Motivation

Rewards and recognition for employees.

While it may sound counterintuitive, increasing incentives does not necessarily lead to increased motivation among workers or students. (Image: Designer491 via Dreamstime)

In recent years, many institutions have shifted their focus from punishment to rewards. This change is for a good reason because punishment fails to improve people’s motivation in schools or jobs. Instead, it often results in short-term compliance, while a pot of dislike, defiance, or anger boils underneath.

If punishment is bad, it follows that rewards are good, right? Apparently not, and it turns out rewards may have similar results as punishment. That is, short-term compliance, but long-term failure.

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But why don’t rewards work? And why don’t people become motivated when promised incentives?

What motivates people

First, it is important to understand what motivates people. According to most experts, there are two categories of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, while extrinsic motivation comes from external factors.

Unmotivated looking young bearded male sits at a desk with a laptop in front of him.
First, it is important to understand what motivates people. (Image: Fizkes via Dreamstime)

For example, are you following a strict diet and exercise routine to lose weight? Do you hike or visit interesting places so that you can post on social media for likes? Are you working hard at work or in school for accolades and tangible rewards? Or are you “encouraging” your child to work hard at something to gain a trophy?

All the above-mentioned scenarios can increase motivation. But they are external or extrinsic motivators that don’t come from within.

On the other hand, you may exercise for the love of it, visit a place out of curiosity, or excel out of genuine interest in what you are doing. These are intrinsic motivations.

Many people may feel there is no difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. After all, the person is now motivated. Unfortunately, multiple studies have found that external rewards limit creativity and may reduce intrinsic motivation.

The negative effects of rewards

Incentives don’t motivate

While it may sound counterintuitive, increasing incentives does not necessarily lead to increased motivation among workers or students. Multiple studies have confirmed this astounding conclusion, which even surprised the psychologists conducting the research. Rewards, it seems, do not work as well as many people believe.

Yes, we all want more money, a Rolex watch, a plaque, or better things. Unfortunately, when workers are offered incentives, the quantity of their output increases, but most of the time, the quality doesn’t.

This doesn’t negate the need for fair pay. Low pay will obviously decrease a person’s motivation and productivity. Similarly, halving a person’s pay will also demotivate them. But on the other hand, doubling a person’s salary may not necessarily lead to increased productivity, particularly in roles that require creativity. 

Businessman holding out a brown envelope filled with US $100 bills.
Doubling a person’s salary may not necessarily lead to increased productivity, particularly in roles that require creativity. (Image: Julia Sudnitskaya via Dreamstime)

Psychologists have done experiments where they rewarded children, teens, and adults for performing tasks, designing stuff, or finding solutions. In these studies, people chose simpler problems and avoided sophisticated solutions if they were promised a reward beforehand. They also lost interest faster than their counterparts with no rewards. 

Rewards kill creativity

People are born with a natural curiosity about the world. Kids want to learn things, but somewhere along the line, most of us stop being curious and begin following a rigid process. Life becomes a series of tests used to measure our intelligence and suitability. And we become better at passing these tests — mostly without learning anything.

In short, very few students ask why they are learning what they are learning. They just study for the tests. And outside of tests and quotas, few people try to innovate or learn more. John Condry, an American psychologist, said extrinsic motivations are the “enemies of exploration.”

If people expect a reward at work, they will also put in little effort. Instead of improving the quality of their work, most workers will just try to find ways to game the system.

Rewards ignore underlying reasons

People who are not motivated have several underlying reasons. Of course, the reason may be they want “more money” or incentives. But most of the time, these reasons go deeper. 

Workers need good pay, no doubt. But they also need social support, room for growth, a listening ear, valuable feedback, and much more. If a manager only offers hefty rewards without other support systems, they are likely to get short-term improvements that fade as soon as the incentives lose their novelty. 

Man in a blue suit and tie touching a screen with the words "mentoring, support, motivation, advice, coaching, goals, and success" on it.
Workers need good pay, but they also need social support, room for growth, a listening ear, valuable feedback, and much more. (Image: Alexandersikov via Dreamstime)

Rewards and punishments are similar

Punishments and rewards are not different. One says: “If you don’t do this, this will happen to you.” The other says: “If you do that, you will get this.”

Nobody likes to be manipulated to do something. Rewards, unlike punishment, seem like a good idea because people work toward their self-interest. But as mentioned, they may improve for a short time and then lose their motivation. Then, what next? Do you add more incentives, and how long can you keep up with that?

As someone once said: “Yes, rewards motivate people. They motivate them to try to get more rewards.” 

Also, rewards reduce cooperation and sometimes lead to resentment. Someone may feel they deserve it more than the “winner” or that the manager is biased. This may work against an institution because cooperation is better than individualism in the long run.

How to improve motivation

While it is highly unlikely that we will completely do away with rewards at home, school, or in the workplace, we can eliminate rewards that primarily boost extrinsic motivation. The reward-punishment model is deeply ingrained within us, but we can make an effort to shift toward fostering intrinsic motivation instead.

For instance, give a person tasks they are good at in the workplace. Focus on their strengths and give them the autonomy and community to do their jobs well. Self-determination contributes much to a person’s motivation instead of outright or subtle manipulation through rewards.

You can adopt better ways to reduce rewards for your children or for yourself. When rewards are attached to something, it unconsciously communicates that the activity is not worth doing for its own sake. For instance, giving children a dollar to clean their rooms may be counterproductive.

By fostering intrinsic motivation and eliminating extrinsic motivators, people can begin to take pleasure in their activities, leading to more sustainable personal development.

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