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At first blush, it seems like these two kinds of motivation should just
add up. If you enjoy defeating orcs, throwing in some gold only seems to
sweeten the deal. But this isn't what happens. Studies have shown that ex-
trinsic motivation can distort, displace, and even destroy intrinsic motiva-
tion. Making an orc drop gold reduces players' natural desire to fight him.
In one study, psychology researcher Edward Deci split participants
into two groups. On the first day, both groups engaged in an intrinsically
rewarding task, like a puzzle or a game. On the second day, one group was
given a reward for the task, like money or free food, while the other group
was allowed to continue playing unrewarded. On the third day, Deci re-
moved the rewards. The group that had never been paid kept happily work-
ing away at the task. But the group that had been paid lost interest now that
their reward was gone. It seemed that once they had been rewarded for the
task, this group decided that the task must not be worth doing on its own.
The extrinsic payment had displaced their intrinsic interest.
Many other studies have explored variations on this theme. Children
create less interesting art when offered a reward to do so. Chess players
solve fewer chess problems in free time when they have been paid to do
so on other occasions. Student poets write less interesting poems when
reminded that writers can make money.
When I was 11 years old, my parents got me a piano teacher. For five
years I dutifully practiced my daily half hour and learned the pieces I
was told to learn. Then, when I was 16, the teacher stopped coming. But,
against my own expectations, I didn't stop practicing. I practiced much,
much more. Some days I would play for three hours at a time. And the
nature of my playing changed. Instead of just plodding toward whatever
performance goal had been set for me, I explored the instrument freely. I
played songs that were too hard or too easy, or from strange genres. I com-
posed and improvised. I played because I wanted to, and that internal fire
was much more powerful than any external push my parents or teacher
could ever have given me.
The motivation-distorting effect of rewards varies depending on how
interesting the task is. Extrinsic motivators work well when applied to
boring tasks, because there is no intrinsic motivation to displace. Paying
you to dig holes doesn't make you dislike digging, because you never liked
it in the first place. It's only when the task is interesting that the effect
occurs. The more interesting the task is, the greater the effect.
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