Are rewards really detrimental?

The use of rewards to make students perform tasks has been reported to decrease their natural interest in the subject as well as stifle their creativity. Using rewards to strengthen performance, causes the unpleasant feeling of being controlled by others and so reduces interest in that task. Educators have been warned of the danger of using behavior modification programs and incentive systems whenever high task interest or creative performance is desirable.

However, Robert Eisenberger, University of Delaware, and Judy Cameron, University of Alberta, Canada, analyzed 25 years of research on intrinsic task interest and creativity and concluded that the detrimental effects of rewards occur under highly restricted, easily avoidable conditions. In addition, they state that positive effects of rewards on generalized creativity are easily attainable using procedures derived from behavior theory.

Limited detrimental effects

A meta-analysis of studies concerning rewards and intrinsic interest shows that the detrimental effects of rewards are more limited than commonly supposed. Accumulated research provides little evidence that rewards reduce intrinsic task interest. If a person receives a tangible reward for completing a task or meeting a standard of quality and subsequently the reward is eliminated, the person generally spends as much time on the activity as he or she did before the reward was introduced.

The only reliable detrimental effect involves time spent on an activity after being rewarded simply for participating in the activity. Receiving a promised reward just for taking part in an activity reduces the amount of time one freely chooses to do that activity. Eisenberger and Cameron state that this effect is consistent with the theory of learned helplessness.

When people learn that they can not influence reward presentation, motivation may be reduced. These kinds of conditions rarely occur in schools. Because students perform tasks repeatedly, it is more important to discover the long-term effects of multiple rewards on intrinsic motivation. Rewards in school usually depends on task completion and quality of performance, and this has not been shown to reduce interest in the task.

Eisenberger and Cameron point out that there are two reliable positive effects of rewards on intrinsic interest. With verbal rewards, people spend more time on a task following the reward’s removal than before its introduction. In addition, people state that they like the task better after a verbal reward or after a tangible reward that depends on performance quality.

Similarly, the research on creativity shows that the detrimental effects of rewards occur under limited conditions that are easily avoided. Rewards can enhance or diminish creative performance, depending on the way they are administered. Some recent research suggests that rewards for highly creative performances can increase generalized creativity.

Rewarding high creativity in one task can enhance subsequent creativity in an entirely different task. Tangible rewards that are perceived as being deserved for good performance are likely to maintain or enhance the perception of competence without undermining feelings of self-determination.

Rewards can have very favorable impact

These researchers believe that rewards, when used properly, have a much more favorable effect on task interest and creativity than commonly thought. They suggest, however, that further study is needed on the effects of personality variables on reactions to different kinds of rewards. They also believe that progress in understanding the relationships among reward, creativity, and intrinsic task interest would benefit from greater cooperation and synthesis of findings from different fields.


“Detrimental Effects of Reward: Reality or Myth”
American Psychologist Volume 51, Number 11, November 1996 pp. 1153-1166

Published in ERN January/February 1997 Volume 10 Number 1

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