By erikanollwebb on Aug 03, 2012
A bit of a lag in posts--I was vacationing in Maine and although I was thinking about where to go next on the blog post, I didn't actually get around to writing anything. I know, slacker.
Picking up on the theme of motivation, let's talk a little bit more about specific things that motivate people. Here's the funny thing about intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation. If you aren't careful, you can take something that people find intrinsically motivating (that is, they just think it's fun) and you can suck the fun out of it by adding an extrinsic motivation like a reward. There are a variety of studies on this going back to the 1970's (see classic articles like this one by E L Deci or by Lepper & Greene). Here's the classic example. You take a group of children who have been identified as liking to read and you divide them into two groups. One group gets told the more you read, the more we will give you a reward, like $1 per book. The other group doesn't get told this (or in another study, only gets an unexpected reward later). After a while, you measure the number of books the kids are reading and you see that the kids you gave a buck a book are reading LESS than the kids who didn't get anything or didn't expect anything. You took something they liked to do and attached a reward and they stopped doing it. The suggestion is that if you take something like reading, which they were doing for pleasure and make it about doing it for money, they stop enjoying reading for its own sake and when the money isn't something they care about anymore, they stop reading. On the other hand, if you take a third group of kids who don't like reading and give them a reward, their reading behavior increases. They aren't doing it for the fun of it, but you can give them an incentive that will increase the amount they read.
The story of course, is never quite that simple and since the 1970's, psychologists and economists have come to realize it's not quite that easy. There are a lot of nuances to when extrinsic rewards work or don't. If you follow Deci and Ryan's 1985 cognitive evaluation theory, anything that leads to a perception of self-determination or of competence will increase intrinsic motivation, while anything that decrease those perceptions will also decrease intrinsic motivation. Eisenberger, Pierce and Cameron (1999) did a nice meta-analysis of the studies on the effects of reward on motivation and concluded that rewards for things that require minimal performance or are not well defined decrease intrinsic motivation, probably because they convey to the person that the task is trivial. However, if the task requires high performance, it conveys that it is important and rewards actually increase intrinsic motivation. Basically, if you reward trivial tasks, people catch on, and they lose any intrinsic motivation they might have had. That could have a real implication in gamification. If you reward people for pointless things, they lose interest and can even be really turned off by it. My own personal example of where pointless badges are an epic fail is the Google News Badges--Techcrunch summed it up nicely in this piece. (You can read up on a lot of Deci's work here if you want to see how that theory has morphed over time into the self-determination theory.)
So where does this lead? In part, I think to the conclusion that if you are not clear what gets you rewarded, you won't increase that behavior and if you reward trivial tasks, you can decrease intrinsic motivation. People are driven by a lot of things, and it's important to understand what motivates them. But if you want reward to work, you need to clearly tie it to the behavior you want and you need to expect high performance. I'll go more into drive theory on the next post, but what we're building up to is how all of this plays into the use of gamification in enterprise software. Lots of psychology behind how we get to this point!