Why incentives don't work in education—or the business world

Conventional wisdom would say that if you wanted to motivate someone to do something, you should offer them some sort of reward. In the context of work, the reward is often monetary in nature. If you meet this month’s sales quota, you’ll earn a bonus of $1,000. That sounds pretty motivating. And you would think that by offering that reward, the employee would that much harder to achieve the objective than if there were no bonus at all. This seems to make sense.

But it could backfire. Indeed, it could even have the opposite effect.

Functional Fixedness

When there is an incentive being offered, you get distracted. You feel rushed. You develop a sense of tunnel vision, driven directly by the reward at the end of that tunnel. This intense sense of focus can be useful under certain circumstances. If you have a repetitive task where the instructions are absolutely clear, the incentive can work as a great motivator and it really can get you to finish the job sooner. You don’t really have to think about it; you just have to do it.

This lends itself to a phenomenon called functional fixedness. It’s a cognitive bias in that you will only view an object for the purpose it is traditionally used. You see a paper clip and you can only see it as a means of holding together pieces of paper. Functional fixedness inherently limits your “MacGyvering” abilities.

The Candle Problem

But what about when you need to do some creative problem solving? What about when the instructions aren’t quite as obvious and you need to come up with your own unique solution? As it turns out, incentives actually detract from this ability.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the candle problem. Volunteers are seated a table with a candle, a book of matches, and a box with some thumbtacks in it. They are told to attach the candle to the wall and light it such that the wax won’t drip on the floor. They try to push the thumbtacks through the candle, but they’re not long enough. They try to melt some of the wax and use it to “glue” the candle to the wall, but that doesn’t really work either.

Volunteers provided with a cash incentive if they complete the task faster than anyone else fared particularly bad at this task. However, volunteers who were told that their time would simply be aggregated with other volunteers fared better. They were able to think more creatively. They were able, literally, to think outside the box and find the solution sooner.

The problem is that the incentivized group only saw the box holding the thumbtacks as a container for the thumbtacks. The other group, however, got beyond that functional fixedness sooner and saw that they could attach the box to the wall using the thumbtacks and simply place the candle in the box. Problem solved.

Intrinsic Value

So, what does this mean? Should we abandon all kinds of incentives and rewards altogether?

Not necessarily. We just have to recognize the impact, both positive and negative, that these kinds of rewards can have on our performance. We have to recognize that external rewards can distract people. Indeed, social scientist Alfie Kohn says that as employees think more about what they will earn for doing their jobs well, the less they will be interested in the actual work they are doing. Instead, it is better to consider intrinsic rewards. People contribute to Wikipedia not because they get paid for it (they don’t), but because they feel they are doing something with purpose. And they have the independence to do that.

More money is nice, don’t get me wrong, but there are diminishing returns after a certain minimum level is reached. After all, satisfied needs do not motivate. People want to feel that they are being valued and that they are providing some sort of real contribution themselves. They want to feel like they’re accomplishing something. Indeed, Kohn says that loving what you do is the most powerful motivator of them all.

Creativity and Personal Success

It’s ironic, really, but if you are working on something that requires “outside of the box” kind of creativity, it may be best to forget about the carrot on the stick. Paint for art’s sake. Write for its own sake. Enjoy the music. Build that masterpiece and solve that problem, because these are things that give you intrinsic pleasure and a sense of personal satisfaction. Then, you may find some real motivation and, as a curious byproduct, achieve some great personal success.

Embedded below is a TED talk by Dan Pink on this subject, including a discussion of the candle problem.