Positive Effects of Rewards and Performance Standards on Intrinsic Motivation

Article excerpt

For over thirty years, researchers in social psychology have argued that rewarding people for doing activities produces detrimental effects. The claim is that when individuals are rewarded for performing a task, they will come to like the task less and spend less time on it once the rewards are no longer forthcoming. Rewards are said to destroy people's intrinsic motivation. A recent meta-analytic review of experiments on the topic, however, shows that under some conditions, rewards actually enhance people's motivation and performance (Cameron, Banko, & Pierce, 2001). Specifically, when people are offered a tangible reward (e.g., money) to meet a designated performance level, studies show increases in measures of intrinsic motivation. The present study is designed to determine how rewards affect motivation and performance when the rewards are tied to meeting increasingly demanding performance standards.

Since the 1970s, more than 140 experiments have examined the effects of reward on intrinsic motivation. A number of meta-analyses have been conducted on the experimental studies. Some researchers argue that negative effects of rewards are pervasive (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999); others contend that negative effects are limited (Cameron & Pierce, 1994, 2002; Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996). The major area of disagreement in the various meta-analyses concerns what has been termed "performance-contingent" rewards. According to Deci et al. (1999), performance-contingent rewards are those "given specifically for performing the activity well, matching some standard of excellence, or surpassing some specified criterion" (p. 628). In their analysis of this reward contingency, Deci et al. found that performance-contingent rewards, on average, led to decreased intrinsic motivation.

In a recent meta-analysis on the topic, Cameron et al. (2001) suggested that the category "performance-contingent" was too broad and that distinct reward procedures that produce positive effects were being combined with those that produce negative effects. Cameron and her associates demonstrated that when studies are organized according to the actual procedures used in experiments, rather than by any theoretical orientation, negative, positive, and no effects of performance-contingent reward are detected (see also Eisenberger, Pierce, & Cameron, 1999). Negative effects of performance-contingent reward occurred when the rewards signified failure or were loosely tied to level of performance. In contrast, intrinsic motivation was maintained or enhanced when the rewards were offered for meeting a specific criterion or for surpassing the performance level of others.

In the few studies that have shown positive effects of tangible rewards on intrinsic motivation (e.g., Harackiewicz, Manderlink, & Sansone, 1984), experimental participants were offered a reward to meet or exceed a certain score on a task (absolute standard) or to do better than a specified norm (normative standard). For example, in a study by Eisenberger, Rhoades, and Cameron (1999), undergraduate students worked on a "find-the-difference" task. The task involved finding six differences in two drawings that were otherwise identical. Participants were asked to find one difference on a first set of drawings, two on the second, three on the third, and four on the fourth. Half the participants were required to exceed a performance level greater than 80% of their classmates and half were required to meet an absolute standard of performance. The participants were told they had met the performance standard when they had found four differences on the last set of drawings. Half the participants in each group were offered and delivered a reward (pay); the other half was assigned to a no-reward condition. The results indicated that participants in reward conditions had higher levels of intrinsic motivation than those in nonreward groups, suggesting that rewards based on exceeding a normative standard or an absolute standard have positive effects. …