Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bait and switch

In one study, young children were “allowed” to play with blocks in different conditions. In one condition, the children were rewarded for playing (given candy or ice cream, if I remember right), in another they were simply allowed to play. Later on, the two groups were again presented with the blocks, only this time neither group was rewarded. The kids who were rewarded during the first session played with the blocks for far less time than the ones who did not receive the reward. 

The explanation goes something like this: when engaged in a behavior that is internally motivated, the question of “why am I doing this?” is easily and unconsciously answered. You are doing this because you want to—the activity is enjoyable in itself. When you are being rewarded for something that you would do for pleasure anyway, the question of why is answered twice, once with the initial (and perhaps unconscious) sense of pleasure, and then again with a conscious pairing of the activity with the reward. Since only one explanation is required, the behavior is thus said to be “over-determined,” and the most salient explanation (in this case the reward) sticks and the more subtle explanation (the internal pleasure) fades and eventually loses its motivating power.

I think of college students and reading in this context. Reading for many people is a rewarding activity, but when you have to read in order to pass a test to get a grade, the activity becomes externally motivated and reading for fun disappears for many people. 

Think about the innumerable ways that consumer society takes what would otherwise be intrinsically rewarding behaviors and yokes them to external trappings—the  word “trappings” says it all!

You can’t control someone who is motivated intrinsically. You can’t make a person find something pleasurable. But you can control someone who is acting for an external reward by simply controlling the reward.

Every paycheck calls for a serious gut check.

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