Unexpected rewards are better than expected rewards

Since I’ve started talking about Would you do it again for free?, I’ve been very interested in any studies that show how extrinsic rewards change intrinsic rewards. The theory is that external rewards can replace your internal values to the point that you’ll no longer do what you valued without external payment or reward of some type.

This study showed that unexpected rewards are better than expected rewards. They took kids who liked to draw and put them in three groups. One group was:

  1. told they’d get a reward for drawing
  2. not told they’d get a reward but got a surprise reward when they were done
  3. not given anything

Then they watched the Rewardkids over the next few days and discovered that those who had received the expected reward drew the least while those who had received the unexpected reward drew the most. (Even though there were now no rewards promised nor given.)

This would mean that in the open source world, unexpected rewards after the work has been done would be the most motivational. Like the GNOME thank you pants, an annual award for outstanding service to the GNOME community. As opposed to bounties or employment. (Not that people shouldn’t be employed or that bounties should be used, but just that according to this study, those types of payment are unlikely to increase motivation.)

Thanks to Dawn Foster for the link.

9 Replies to “Unexpected rewards are better than expected rewards”

  1. I’d agree with that. Working for an expected reward makes it a job, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that much more satisfying when a reward comes unexpectedly from someone appreciating what you’ve done.

  2. I have a question, how can the no-reward ones draw less than the surprising-reward? I mean, you would need to let them draw *after* they are given the surprise reward, right? So, were there 2 phases of drawing?

  3. There was one planned drawing event where everyone drew and got rewards or not. Then they just watched how much the kids drew on their own over the next few days.

  4. Hi Stormy,
    what you say is true, *if* you assume opensource devs have the same motivation or value system as american kids. While it may be true for some, I highly doubt grown-ups from several cultures support the comparison.

  5. I think this is why being invited to hackfests is highly motivational, in particular for student developers. They are invited to go to a foreign country just because they hacked on awesome stuff. And noone even asks anything from them in return. But if they want to, they can meet lots of people they already know and admire from the project. What’s not to like?

  6. Xav,
    I agree that all the studies don’t translate 100% to other groups and cultures. They just give us insight into what might be and we have to figure out if that’s really true or not.
    It’s definitely worth thinking about though.

  7. The only problem with the unexpected reward is that some people that come back to do more may then expect a reward, and you’ve come back round…?
    Be interesting to see a follow up on this.

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