Does money kill good motivations?

I get asked a lot about my “Would you do it again for free?” talk. (“Would you do it again for free” was about the question, if you take developers that are working on open source software for free and you pay them, if you stop paying
them, will they still work on open source software?  This was the topic of my keynote at GUADEC, LinuxConf Australia, and SCALE – the talk evolved over time. The next step is to communicate how companies can work effectively with communities.)

I’m working on a transcript for the talk as the slides don’t standalone. However, it’s taking a long time (as I don’t spend much time on it) and I got asked again for reference material. I’m still working on the transcript but in the meantime I thought I’d share the studies I talk about it the beginning of my talk as that’s often what people ask about.

I found the following five studies that explore how external rewards affect internal or intrinsic rewards:

  1. NYC “pay for grades.” New York City is offering financial incentives to students to encourage them to do well in school. Kids are being offered up to $500 a year to take the standardized tests, get good grades and attend school regularly.  Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice is very critical of the plan.  He says that by paying them we may actually make them less likely to want to go to school (unless they are paid.) Instead he says we need
    to figure out why kids don’t want to do well in school.  We need to work at making them internally motivated to do well in school.
  2. Kids & Crayons. In the same New York Times editorial, Barry Schwartz pointed to another study that shows how external rewards can kill intrinsic motivations. This study was done with preschool kids – they were given some special markers.  Some of the kids were given awards for playing with the markers and some were not. Those that got rewards were less likely to play with the markers again and less likely to draw pictures. They associated drawing pictures with earning rewards not with having fun and so were less likely to draw pictures just for fun!
  3. Swiss nuclear waste. In a slightly different twist, a study was done to see if external rewards were more or less motivating than internal rewards from the onset.(Actually, I don’t think that’s what they were studying but that’s the question they ended up answering.)  A few years ago Switzerland was trying to figure out where to put its nuclear waste – no town wanted it.  Researchers went door to door and asked people if they would take the waste in their town.  When they were reminded that it was their duty as a Swiss citizen, 50% of them said ok.  When they were told they’d be paid a substantial sum (about six weeks pay every year,) only 25% of them said ok!  It wasn’t worth the money. [Found in Motivating Crowd Theory from Luis Villa's post. I heard it was also covered in Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.]
  4. Israeli Daycare. An Israeli daycare also conducted an unintended study on motivations. They were tired of parents arriving late to pick up their kids, so instead of giving the parents a hard time and explaining that their workers wanted to go home on time they decided to start fining parents. Parents saw the fine as sanctioned baby sitting and started showing up late even more often. They no longer had to feel bad about showing up late because they were paying for the service! The scary thing (for the daycare) was that when they removed the fines (because parents were showing up even later,) parents didn’t go back to their original behavior!  (I think the daycare must not have charged enough. My daycare charges a $1/minute and I have to say that’s motivating!  Although I am more motivated by the embarrassment of being the last parent and of making my kid feel bad.) [Dave Neary pointed me to Luis Villa's post on this one. I also read about it in Freakonomics.]
  5. Household chores. Motivation crowding theory cites a study that found that kids that were paid to mow the lawn would only mow the lawn if they were paid to mow it.

So the question is, can those studies be applied to open source software? And for that you’ll have to wait for the transcript or watch one of the videos of my talk. (The short answer is, it applies, but money is not as demotivating as you’d first think for a number of other reasons.)