Friday, January 21, 2011

Autonomy, mastery and purpose first, carrots and sticks second

“People are not as endlessly manipulable and predictable as you would think”  Most people believe that the more you reward a certain behaviour you will get more of it, while by creating a set of punishments will make you get less of certain behaviour.  This is actually not true!
A study was done with MIT, University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon, on a large group of people.  The people were given various different tasks from memorizing strings of numbers to physical tasks as shooting a basketball.  Three different sets of monetary rewards were given. 
Level 1 – People who performed pretty well were given a small monetary award.
Level 2 – People who performed medium well were given a medium monetary award.
Level 3 – People who performed at the top were given a large monetary award. (Top prize of $50)
This is truly the system for people who work for commissions, or other monetary incentive systems. 
What was found out?
For the skills that used only mechanical skills, what most would expect was seen, the larger the pay the better the performance.  However, with skills that required even the basic cognitive ability, the larger the pay the WORSE the performance. 
Some could argue that $50 is not enough incentive for a MIT student to perform their best on a task.  To defeat this argument the group then went to Madurai India (Rural India), where the top prize IS actually a significant amount of money.  The prizes now became:
Level 1 – 2 weeks salary
Level 2 – 1 month salary
Level 3 – 2 month salary
Again what was witnessed was, “Higher incentives lead to worse performance”.
Moral of the story:
For simple incentive tasks, rewards work great, but for more complicated and in depth tasks, rewards actually demoralize the ability to complete the task.   If you want a student to have the smallest basis of understanding for a concept, then rewards (or carrots) will work wonders.  When you ask the student to be creative, think critically, or show some cognitive understanding you will not need marks.
This then asks the questions what are the factors for motivation, which the video explains as:
1) Autonomy: students want to be self-directed, and to have control over their own learning.  If you only want compliance from students, then you cannot allow them to be self-directed.  However, self-direction will allow for true engagement to flourish in a classroom.
Proof: A software company called Atlassian, out of Australia, does something very unique.  Once, every quarter, they allow their employees to work on whatever they, with whomever they want, and however they want.  They are provided with beer, cake, etc. so as to create a fun environment.  The only catch: whatever you create, fix, or solve, you must show your results.  The company has seen, just in these 24 hours alone, a large array of fixes for existing software, new software, and so on.  “Pure un-diluted autonomy truly works!”
2) Mastery and purpose: Students truly want to get better at tasks they are required to complete.  No one enjoys not knowing, or not being good, at something. 
Proof: “People will do things for free, spend time doing it for the fun of it and never expect any reward from it” Most people will shake their head at this statement.  If you are one of those people, look at the site “Wikipedia”.  Here is a site that is created solely on people doing research, spending time reading, and then providing their knowledge FOR FREE.  Look at how many educational blogs there are; people sharing their ideas, thoughts and answers with the world, for no gain at all.  What drives them? “Mastery and contribution”.
Educators need to start realizing we are teaching kids and that “carrots” and “sticks” are no longer driving motivation.  Instead, we need to give students autonomy, mastery and purpose.


  1. Do you have a reference for this study?

  2. Regarding rewards and performance: Tom Wujec noticed the same when conducting his Marshmallow Project.

    Really very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  3. The study in all its glory is here: