Does money kill good motivations?

November 4th, 2008 in open source, Would you do it again for free?

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.)

14 Responses to “Does money kill good motivations?”

  1. This is exciting studies, indeed!
    In Sweden (where I live) we are paying kids in school from age 16. The sum is about $140/month. The funny thins is that none actually cares! The kids that wants to drop off do it (my girlfriend is one example), and the ones that do want to go to school is not interested in school for the money.
    It’s probably more relevant when we’re studying at university level, but not as an incentive to make us do the studies, just to make it possible for everyone to study.

  2. Personally, I don’t agree with the implied thrust of your argument, looking at things from my perspective.
    I work for a free software company. If I answer your question – if I weren’t being paid, would I do it again? – the answer is no. But this doesn’t mean that my paid work has destroyed my pure motivation.
    What it means is that being paid gives me the opportunity to contribute. Let me explain.
    What I am paid is a fairly modest salary. Given my abilities and qualifications, I could quite easily earn a lot more money doing some other job. If I did that, I would no longer contribute anywhere near as much work to free software as I currently do. This is quite simply a question of practicality. I would be spending, say, nine hours a day on the other job. With the rest of my time, I still need to do the things that I enjoy, spend time with my family, and take care of regular chores and so on. That would leave a rather small amount of time left for contributing to open source projects.
    Yes, there are people who have part time jobs (or are kids, or students, or whatever) and a large amount of dedication (and lack of care for their own personal well-rounded…ness) who appear to be happy to spend four hours a day doing everything else, four sleeping, and sixteen hacking. For free. But these people are, I can’t help but feel, something of a minority…and it’s not an attitude that should be encouraged from a perspective of wider well-being.
    In my situation, I’m still effectively ‘contributing’, in the sense that I willingly work this job despite the fact I could get a much better-paid job, a) because I love the job and b) because I think it’s worthwhile in the sense of contributing to free software development. If you’re going to go down the road that paying people to work on free software is a dangerous thing to do, you risk alienating people like me. Without having a (modestly) paid job working on free software, there is no practical way I could do as much work on it as I do.

  3. Jos says:

    The difference between being told ‘it’s your duty’ and ‘you’ll be paid’ is that when you are being paid, you accept any problems that may happen, whereas when you do it because it is your duty, you feel more part of the system and feel entitled to support from this system should things go wrong.

  4. Stormy says:

    Adam, actually I do conclude that paying people a salary to work on open source software is one of the least disruptive ways for companies to work on open source software assuming they let them work appropriately. (Participate on mailing lists, discussions, patches that are good for the project, …)

  5. Stormy: ah, in that case, there’s no disagreement :) It just seems you often make posts like this one, which seem to suggest that Paying People Is Bad or something along those lines…

  6. Stormy says:

    It’s just that I haven’t gotten to that part of the talk yet … :)

  7. Mats Taraldsvik says:

    Interesting.
    Money can increase, but not create, motivation, then. Seems reasonable.
    I guess you would rather want, say, a surgeon who is more motivated by saving lives, than his salary. :)

  8. Stormy says:

    Hmm. I’m not sure you really care why your surgeon is motivated … what if what motivates him/her is his ego? And losing a life would mean he lost. Would that be better or worse than someone who cared about saving lives because he loves people? I don’t know. I think the one that was motivated by more than ego would probably end up doing a better job, not just of the actual surgery but with things like team building, patient interaction, etc.
    I think money can create motivation. People do some jobs they really hate because they get paid – although you could argue they aren’t very motivated!

  9. Joe Buck says:

    It depends on how the pay is structured. An open-ended relationship, where the open source developer has a secure paycheck but also has a great deal of freedom to set the goals, allows him or her to be much more productive than if the open source development has to happen in addition to the day job that puts food on the table.
    However, if the money is for a very specific deliverable, and somebody else gets to make all the design decisions, it isn’t particularly motivating and the developer will have little interest in continuing once the initial milestone is met.

  10. OneMore says:

    I agree for the most part with Adam and Joe.
    Anyway, I’ll explain my case, which maybe will allow you to see a wider spectrum.
    I work for a company to write free software. Previously, I was working for a proprietary software company, but I was -sort of- an open source advocate and contributor (I say “sort of” because I couldn’t spend too much spare time on it, hacking on saturdays sometimes make you feel very lonely ;) ), and wanted to change things from the inside. Finally realised that I couldn’t, and turned out I successfully applied and got the position for the the open source company: I actually started earning more money than before (so, as you see, it’s not the same case as Adam’s); however:
    - I’ve had recently a 2nd raise but mainly because I’ve moved to the country where the company is based (life cost is higher here, although I don’t notice it very much).
    - The concrete project in where I am is *not* that motivating than working in the open source project *I would* work if I could.
    However, I think that this may change in the future because the company rocks and maybe I move to a more grateful project. I guess I could get wealthier jobs in this country now, but not for working on open source (and on non-web technologies, which I dislike very much), so I don’t even think about changing.
    Because of not being in such an interesting project though, sometimes I’m again tempted to contribute to other open source projects in my spare time, but my long-term target is to hack only on a day-job basis in order to also enjoy my normal/social life.
    BTW, I think you should include initiatives as ITO in your talk, they are pretty motivating.

  11. Stormy says:

    Hi Joe, I agree completely. I talk about the different ways that people get paid and how that effects their motivation. I was going to try to blog that part next.
    OneMore, thanks for sharing your story! I agree initiatives are important.

  12. Mats Taraldsvik says:

    Stormy: Good point, I didn’t think of ego. However, as you said, team building, patient interaction and teaching others, if applicable, would be better if he/she was motivated by interest – and that is part of his or her job.
    As for people hating their job(s), I may have misinterpreted. I was/am thinking of motivation as interest in this context, and I don’t think it is created with money alone.
    Also, a person without pride in his/her work, or motivated by her/his ego and/or money alone, doesn’t care if errors are made, as long as he/she can hide it in some way. In my opinion that pride and interest is related here. This may be slightly off topic, though.

  13. alex_mayorga says:

    You might have already read this one, but this post made me go dig up this link I had on del.icio.us http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/11/thinking-about-money-causes-people-to-avoid-asking-for-and-giving-help-research-in-science-magazine.html
    It might come handy =)
    Really looking forward to a transcript or better yet a video ;)

  14. Stormy says:

    Thanks for the link.
    There are several videos. Here’s the SCALE keynote one, http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6000071462331877503&hl=en.