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.