Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

We Are Motivated by the Prospect of Missing Out on Rewards

Motivation to work is driven by the prospect of missing out.

You probably know that the best motivation to do something is to really love to do it.  The love of the work itself is called intrinsic motivation.  I know that I get up each day wanting to come to work because I love my job.  I am glad that I get paid to do it, because I need to make money doing something.  But, my motivation to work hard comes from the enjoyment of the work itself.

 That said, there are lots of really boring things out there that also need to get done.  When it is hard to generate much enthusiasm to do a chore, it can be helpful to have some kind of extrinsic reward to do it.  Some of these incentives may be things you choose for yourself (if I clean up my desk, then I’ll go out and get candy bar).  Other incentives may be provided by other people (if you alphabetize these folders, you will get $5).

 A fascinating paper in the January, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Scott Wiltermuth and Francesca Gino examined a way to improve the effectiveness of incentives. 

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 Think about a simple situation.  Suppose I have a set of items that I need put in alphabetical order.  It will take a long time to complete the task, so the longer I can get you to work on it, the better it is for me.  One way to get you to work longer would be to offer more incentives the longer you work.  So, if you work for 10 minutes, you can choose one item from a set, and if you work for 20 minutes, you can choose two different items.  You should certainly work longer to get two items than to get one.

 Now, imagine I group the items available as rewards into two categories.  I tell you that if you work for 10 minutes, you can get an item from either of the categories you choose.  If you work for 20 minutes, you can take one item from each category.

 Notice, that economically, these two situations are nearly identical.  In fact, if there are some differences between the items available in each category, you actually have more flexibility to get the rewards you want if you are offered the chance to pick two items than if you pick from each category.

 Across six studies, though, the researchers demonstrate that people are much more highly motivated to get one item from each of two categories than to get two items that are not categorized. 

 For example, in the first study, participants are asked to do a boring task in which they have to transcribe text.  They will get one prize if they work for 10 minutes and two prizes if they work for 20 minutes.  As in the example, I just described, one group sees the items grouped arbitrarily into two containers.  They can choose an item from one container if they work for 10 minutes and an item from each container if they work for 20 minutes.  The other group can select from among the entire set of items. 

 In this study, about 35% of participants worked a full 20 minutes when the rewards were categorized into two groups, but only about 10% worked a full 20 minutes when they could select two prizes from a single group. 

 Why does this happen?

 The researchers collected evidence that the categories increase people’s concern that they might miss out on something if they don’t get a reward from each category.  In several follow-up studies, people were asked to rate whether they felt like they would be missing out if they did not work the full amount of time.  People offered the chance to select from two categories of items were far more concerned that they would miss out than those who could select two items from a single group. 

 The researchers also explored this question in another way.  In two studies, participants were shown objects that were grouped into two categories or into more than two categories.  In each case, they could select from one category if they worked for a short period of time and from a second category if they worked for a longer period of time.  When there were only two categories, people were much more motivated to work the longer period than when there were more than two categories.  That is, when the situation guaranteed that people were going to miss out on some categories, they did not feel as motivated to work as when they could get a reward from every category.

 Putting this all together, then, people have a strong desire to avoid missing out on experiences and rewards.  One way that we determine whether we might miss out on something is to focus on the categories of things around us.  Those categories make it easy for us to keep track of what we are missing.  We are willing to put in extra effort to avoid the possible regret we would feel from missing out.

 Interestingly, the categories in these studies were completely arbitrary.  That means that the participants were motivated to work harder by a factor that had no real bearing on the rewards that were actually available to them.  Ultimately, this suggests that when you are working toward a reward, it is worth thinking about what makes that reward valuable to you.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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