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How to Boost Motivation

Research suggests that external rewards can be counterproductive.

Key points

  • External rewards, such as financial incentives, are often used to boost motivation, but research suggests this approach is problematic.
  • The Cobra Effect demonstrates how external incentives often have unintended consequences.
  • The Overjustification Effect shows that external rewards sometimes lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation.
How to boost motivation?
Source: Rodnae/Pexels

For several weeks, I’ve been trying to motivate my 2-year-old to eat more healthily. My darling daughter has a fond love for veggie nuggets—little vegetarian protein bites with a crispy breadcrumb coating. Unfortunately, she has recently taken to chewing off the edging and refusing to eat the healthy protein center.

This left me with a challenge: How could I entice her to eat more than just the fatty crust? I came up with a solution. If she ate well and cleared her entire plate of nuggets, I rewarded her with an ice lolly for dessert—what a treat!

Unfortunately, I soon learned that I had to do much better! My daughter immediately caught on to my strategy and consequently adapted her behavior. She continued to scarf down the breadcrumb edging first but then hid the rest of her nuggets in the nooks and crannies of her high chair. By pretending she’d eaten her main dish, she tricked me into handing over the dessert. This way, she not only managed to avoid eating her protein, she also created an awful mess for me to clean up.

Ah, the joys of parenting.

The Cobra Effect

The little anecdote above holds at least two important lessons for life:

  1. Toddlers can be cheeky little tricksters.
  2. Overly simplistic rewards often have unforeseen consequences.

The second fact is in line with economic insights on perverse incentives, which refer to measures that may aggravate the problem instead of solving it. Such incentives and their consequences are broadly referred to as the “Cobra Effect.”

The Cobra Effect received its exotic name from a historical example of incentives gone wrong. Dating back to the times of colonial rule in India, it reminds us of the British attempts to increase inner-city safety by ridding Delhi of venomous cobras. Indeed, the British rulers started offering sizable cash prizes to any citizen who captured and killed the dangerous reptiles.

What the government didn’t anticipate, however, was that many citizens viewed their incentive scheme as an easy source of income. People started breeding cobras for the sole purpose of killing them and pocketing the reward money afterward. Once the British rulers figured out what was happening, they scrapped their perverse reward system, but the damage was already done. Cobra breeders released their snakes into the city, and the overall effect was a vast increase in cobras. Hence, rather than freeing the city of the dangerous pest, the British incentives had quite the opposite effect.

Examples of perverse incentives are all too common and highlight the need to constantly test and review reward schemes to check that they are indeed working as they should.

Rewards and motivation

In addition to the Cobra Effect, external rewards can have surprisingly negative influences on people’s motivation. Motivation refers to a person’s drive to engage in a certain action or work towards a goal.

Psychologists typically differentiate between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The first type describes people with an inherent determination that doesn’t require external rewards. Examples include students with an inborn thirst for knowledge. Such students typically care little about grades or prizes and often study out of pure enjoyment. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, describes people being motivated by the promise of an external reward. For example, some students may be inspired to study by the expectation of obtaining higher grades or the hope of receiving financial rewards from their parents.

Previous research shows that offering external rewards may interfere with innate levels of intrinsic motivation through a phenomenon called the “Overjustification Effect.” A seminal study from the early 1970s found that participants’ efforts in a puzzle task improved when they were presented with a financial reward for the number of puzzles solved. However, this effect was temporary and reversed as soon as the external reward was removed again. In fact, their effort levels dropped drastically and ended up being much lower than before the reward had been introduced.

The researcher compared this pattern of effort to a group of participants who didn’t receive any financial incentives. The group without external rewards demonstrated even levels of effort throughout and did better in terms of overall motivation. Many other studies have confirmed the Overjustification Effect and specified the conditions under which it occurs.

Two different explanations may explain its power. One theory suggests that people with an external source of motivation focus their attention on the extrinsic reward and no longer notice their inherent enjoyment of the task. The second theory states that people interpret external rewards as measures that force them to engage, thereby undermining their freedom of choice. This, in turn, produces negative feelings and reduces intrinsic motivation.

Thinking back to our previous example of Delhi’s cobra infestation, it is likely that the Overjustification Effect lowered the local population’s natural desire to reduce the number of snakes in their city. After all, why would they engage in an effort that had previously been well-paid? Furthermore, wasn’t the action to rid themselves of cobras yet another example of undue colonial influence?

How to boost motivation?

It appears that external rewards such as financial incentives often have unintended consequences, as demonstrated by the Cobra Effect. Additionally, in certain situations, they may interfere with natural levels of intrinsic motivation and thereby decrease a person’s natural drive for achievement. This is bad news for all parents like myself, who have previously tried to bribe their kids with sugary treats. It also begs the question of what other strategies may be employed to inspire lasting behavior change.

A potential strategy is to stay away from the minefield of external incentives and instead focus on fostering intrinsic motivation. Previous research suggests three simple tips:

  1. Offer a choice. To increase another person’s motivation, it’s helpful to offer different approaches to achieving the goal. If trying to inspire your child to eat more protein, for example, it could help to let them choose between veggie nuggets and lentil burgers.
  2. Include immediate benefits. Rather than highlighting the end goal of an action, it usually helps to offer some immediate benefits along the way and make the journey more enjoyable. For example, a child is unlikely to care much about the long-term benefits of consuming a healthy diet. However, a simple way to make healthy food more fun could involve serving it on pretty plates adorned with the child’s favorite cartoon or book characters.
  3. Focus on immediate benefits. A final strategy is to draw attention to the pleasurable aspects of the behavior you are aiming to encourage. Again, if trying to motivate a child to eat more healthily, this could involve pointing out the pretty colors of different vegetables or commenting on the lovely crunch of fresh carrots.

Any parent will know that the tips above are hardly foolproof. However, they certainly offer an easy starting point for boosting natural motivation. Ensuring that my daughter eats a balanced diet will certainly remain a challenge for many years to come. But at least I’ve learned to steer clear of counterproductive rewards!