December 21, 2015

The power of intrinsic rewards is great but soon forgotten

Research into self-determination theory has shown that doing things we find interesting has many positive effects. Doing interesting work in intrinsically rewarding. This means that the doing of the work is so interesting and pleasurable that we need no encouragement to want to do it. When we do such activities we tend to be more engaged, we learn and perform better and we persist longer. By the way, what makes activities interesting is not only determined by the content of the activity bit also by the context in which we are doing it, for example the pleasant social interactions we have when doing the activity.

New research by Woolley & Fishbach (2015) not only confirms the power of intrinsic rewards but also shows that we are often too little aware of this power. The authors demonstrated in 6 studies that people are mainly aware of the power of intrinsic rewards when they are doing the activity. However, when they are not in the activity, they tend to underestimate the power of intrinsic rewards. This is both the case before we are doing the activity and after we have done the activity.

In other words, both before and after the interesting activity we tend to underestimate how important intrinsic rewards are for our pleasure, persistance, and the quality of our work. Only during the activity we fully realize how important and pleasurable interesting work is. Because of this we tend to place too little weight on how interesting tasks are when we are planing our work. Instead, we place too much weight on extrinsic awards, such as money. But once we are in the activity, we are reminded how important interesting work is and we may regrets our choice for the extrinsic reward. Unfortunately, after we finished the task we, again, soon forget this, due to which we are likely to repeat the same mistake.

Read more: The Experience Matters More Than You Think: People Value Intrinsic Incentives More Inside Than Outside an Activity

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