100 Things You Should Know About People: #81 — Intrinsic Rewards Trump Extrinsic Rewards

Picture of a Good Drawing CertificateLet’s say you are an art teacher, and you want to encourage your students to spend more time practicing their drawing. You create a “Good Drawing Certificate” to give to your students. If your goal is to have them draw more, and for them to stick with it, how should you give them the certificate? Should you give them one every time they draw? Or only sometimes? Lepper, Greene and Nisbett conducted research on this question way back in 1973. They divided children into 3 groups:

Group 1, the Expected Group — The researchers showed the children the “Good Drawing Certificate” and asked if they wanted to draw in order to get the certificate.

Group 2, the Unexpected group — The researchers asked the children if they wanted to draw, but didn’t mention anything about a certificate. After the children spent time drawing, they received an (unexpected) drawing certificate.

Group 3, the Control Group — The researchers asked the children if they wanted to draw, but didn’t mention a certificate and didn’t give them one.

What happened 2 weeks later? — The real part of the experiment came 2 weeks later. During playtime the drawing tools were put out in the room. The children weren’t asked anything about drawing, the tools were just put in the room and available. So what happened?  Children in Groups 2 and 3, the Unexpected and the Control Groups spent the most time drawing. The children in Group 1, the ones who had received an expected reward, spent the least time drawing. “Contingent” rewards (rewards given based on specific behavior that is spelled out ahead of time) resulted in less of the desired behavior. Later the researchers went on to do more studies like this, and with adults as well as children, finding similar results.

What do you think? Do you use intrinsic or extrinsic rewards at your workplace? At your website?

And if you like to read the research:

Lepper, M., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.




100 Things You Should Know About People: #38 — Even The Illusion Of Progress Is Motivating

Picture of graph showing the goal gradient effectYou are given a frequent buyer card for your local coffeeshop. Each time you buy a cup of coffee you get a stamp on your card. When the card is filled you get a free cup of coffee. Here are two different scenarios:

Card A: The card has 10 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card all the boxes are blank.

Card B: The card has 12 boxes for the stamps, and when you get the card the first two boxes are already stamped.

Question: How long will it take you to get the card filled up? Will it take longer or shorter for scenario A vs. scenario B? After all, you have to buy 10 cups of coffee in both scenarios in order to get the free coffee. So does it make a difference which card you use?

The answer apparently is yes. You will fill up the card faster with Card B than with Card A. And the reason is called the “goal-gradient” effect.

The goal-gradient effect was first studied in 1934 by Hull with rats. He found that rats that were running a maze to get food at the end would run faster as they got to the end of the maze.

The goal-gradient effect says that you will accelerate your behavior as you progress closer to your goal. The scenarios I describe above were part of a research study by Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng (full reference is below).  They decided to see if humans would behave like the rats. And the answer is, yes they do.

Here are some important things to keep in mind about the goal-gradient effect:

  • The shorter the distance to the goal the more motivated people will be to reach it.
  • You can get this extra motivation even with the illusion of progress, as in Scenario B above. There really isn’t any progress (you still have to buy 10 coffees), but it seems like there is some progress so it has the same effect
  • People enjoy being part of the reward program. When compared to customers who were not part of the program, the customers with the reward cards smiled more, chatted longer with café employees, said “thank you” more often and left a tip more often (all statistically significant for you research buffs out there).
  • In a related experiment the same researchers showed that people would visit a web site more frequently and rate more songs during each visit as they got closer to a reward goal at the site. So this goal-gradient effect appears to be generalizable across many situations.
  • Motivation and purchases plummet right after the goal is reached. This is called a “post-reward resetting phenomenon”.  If you have a 2nd reward level people will initially not be very motivated to reach that 2nd reward. Right after a reward is reached is when you are most at risk of losing your customer.

And for those of you who want to read the original research:

Ran Kivetz, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng, The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected:Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention, Journal of Marketing Research, 39 Vol. XLIII (February 2006), 39–58.


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