The Washington Post reviews new research on the relationship between external rewards and internal motivation. The researcher cited, Edward Deci, has written an excellent text I use in my introductory eductaional psychology classes (Why We Do What We Do).
Psychologists have long been interested in what happens when people’s internal drives are replaced by external motivations. A host of experiments have shown that when threats and rewards enter the picture, they tend to destroy the inner drives. Paychecks and pink slips might be powerful reasons to get out of bed each day, but they turn out to be surprisingly ineffective — and even counterproductive — in getting people to perform at their best.
More than three decades ago, Edward Deci, a social and personality psychologist at the University of Rochester, found the first experimental evidence of a phenomenon with wide relevance to the way most Americans conduct their personal, professional and social lives.
Deci tracked a bunch of college students who were solving puzzles for fun. He divided them into two groups. One group was allowed to keep solving puzzles as before. People in the other were offered a small financial reward for each puzzle they solved.
The psychologist later evaluated the volunteers: He found that people given a financial incentive were now less interested in solving puzzles on their own time. Although these people had earlier been just as eager as those in the other group, offering an external incentive seemed to kill their internal drive.
“They thought of it as something they really enjoy and like to do, but now they do it in order to get money, and they think of the task as an instrument to get money and not an activity that has value in its own right,” Deci said. “Human beings both want to — and, in a deeper way, need to — feel a sense of being autonomous. When someone else begins to seduce you into behaving with an offer of a reward, it takes away your sense of being autonomous. Now you are doing it for someone else.”