To be smarter, ignore external rewards

Last night, I watched a great talk by Dan Pink—author of several self-help books. He made a compelling point and he cited research papers. I went and read these research papers and I had great fun. Essentially, boosting your motivation with external rewards can lower the quality—though maybe not the quantity—of your work.

Indeed, Ariely et al. tell us in Large stakes and big mistakes that rewards may fail to increase worker productivity on cognitive demanding tasks. Eriksson et al. describes the phenomenon as follows:

(…) increased conscious attention to one’s own process of performance, implicit competition, cash incentives, or the presence of an audience can reduce performance (…)

These results have been independently verified several times (see Mobbs et al. for example).

My conclusion: Researchers or engineers pushed hard by external rewards will produce more, but not better work. To get higher quality and creative work, you need low pressure environment. This may explain why many creative people cut themselves off from the world for extended periods.

Rewarding researchers with better funding, better pay and prizes, may increase the volume of their contribution, while lowering the quality of their work.

Here is the talk that motivated this blog post:

Further reading: We Perform Best When No One Tells Us What To Do

Daniel Lemire, "To be smarter, ignore external rewards," in Daniel Lemire's blog, August 26, 2009.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

4 thoughts on “To be smarter, ignore external rewards”

  1. I doubt many people outside of academia understand how much research is driven by external motivation. From the outside, it looks like faculty, especially tenured faculty, are free to pursue whatever they are interested in. In practice, most faculty are driven by publications and grants.

  2. It’s a great talk and something I generally agree with, but I am not sure when he asserts that management is a human creation. Management might be an inevitable consequence overhead of a coordinated effort.

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