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Theories of reward and motivation

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Psychology, derived from ancient Greek roots “ psyche” and “ logos”, which means “ mind” and “ knowledge or study” respectively, is defined as the scientific study of behaviour and mental processes, in which the behaviour refers to anything we do (Coon & Mitterer, 2012, p. 14). Psychologists uses systematic observation to gather empirical evidence to derive a scientific theory. Not until 130 years ago, when William Wundt set up a laboratory to study conscious experience in a scientific manner, that psychology started as a science (Coon & Mitterer, 2012, p. 26). For thousands of years individuals have been informally observing human behaviours. Recently, many individuals claim that the theories on human behaviours and mental processes psychologists had invested much time and effort to discover are merely “ common sense” (Coon & Mitterer, 2012, p. 15). For instance, performance can be improved by giving rewards, is a common sense that society perceive as the truth. However, the act of enhanced performance by giving rewards to individual is confined within a small social circle, or are derived from a person’s attempt to make sense out of their physical world (Qian & Guzzetti, 2000, p. 1). The higher the value of rewards, the higher the drive levels or motivation of an individual, the better the results achieved. Rewards are generally attractive to people, and hence would force them to put in effort to obtain it. This wrong “ common sense” theory which still persists today, giving rewards, especially material rewards, will enhance one’s performance, is inaccurate.

This theory is first rejected by Sam Glucksberg in his experiment. In Glucksberg’s (1964) research, he investigated the influence of strength of drive (motivation) on functional fixedness strength, which is defined as a type of cognitive bias that involves a tendency to see objects as only working in a particular way (Cherry, n. d.). Glucksberg seek to prove that rewards do not allow an increase in problem-solving time. In his experiment, Glucksberg set up different scenarios to compare the effect of rewards: A group of people were tested for time taken to solve problem when offered incentives, and another when incentives are not offered. These two groups were then divided into further subgroups where the subjects put into test in two other scenarios: when the solution is more straightforward and when the solution requires more thought process. This ensured that there was no biasedness in the experiment and that the increase in functional fixedness strength was only due to increase in drive levels. Through this experiment, it was concluded that participants used relatively longer time to solve problems requiring more thought process when given rewards. Also, in his research, Glucksberg concluded that there was no effect of rewards on an individual when the solution to the problem is straight forward. Similar timings were recorded and the difference are relatively smaller as compared to those of complex problem solving. Throughout many years, numerous researches upon this topic had been conducted and they concluded with the same observation (e. g. Bijleveld, Custers, & Aarts, 2011; Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2011; Jordon, 1986; Panagopoulos, 2013).

In the society, economists generally believes that incentives enhances performance (Panagopoulos, 2013, p. 266). To this day, it has been proven many times by psychological researches, which suggest the opposite to this theory. While this is true in some cases, for example, when the task is simple and only requires memory work or has a straight forward solution (Bijleveld, Custers, & Aarts, 2011, p. 865), it does not work in others. Rewards function as a barrier when individuals are faced with complex problem-solving tasks. Materialrewards stale an individual’s ability to solve complex problems (Glucksberg, 1964). Glucksberg (1964), concluded in his research that rewards influence drive levels and hence impair problem-solving performance. Similarly, research has also shown that monetary incentives not only does not improves one’s performance, it might cause drastic results as well (Bijleveld, Custers, & Aarts, 2011). When introduced to the monetary rewards consciously, individuals tend to consciously reflect on the reward, and hence thwart one’s performance (Bijleveld, Custers, & Aarts, 2011). This research has refute the effectiveness of a powerful motivator – money. Several research also assess the effect of material rewards on motivation, and results turn out to be undesirable as it actually undermines it (e. g., Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2011; Jordon, 1986). Hence giving rewards does not enhance performance in many cases.

The fact that giving rewards does not enhance, or might harm performance can be explained psychologically. Individuals are unable to focus on the task when given rewards. Bijleveld, Custers and Aarts (2011) indicates that consciously perceived rewards cause people to reflect on what is at stake, hence prompt people to more strongly concentrate on task stimuli and details. However, being too focussed in the task can be harmful to an individual’s performance. Enhanced concentration might interfere with thought process and hence effective performance, for example, processing of unnecessary and irrelevant ideas, hence thwart the enhancement of performance (p. 866). Presence of distractions is a reason behind divided attention, which causes problem solving cannot take place effectively. This supports the consistent finding where rewards do not result in higher performance. This can also be explained by a research done by Olivers and Nieuwenhuis (2006), that such distractions from the main problem “ is due to an overinvestment of attentional resources in stimulus processing, a suboptimal processing mode that can be counteracted by manipulations promoting divided attention” (p. 364). Hence, increased focus and concentration due to higher motivation levels, can hurt performance.

It is not uncommon to observe individuals being motivated by rewards. This might be the source of the theory. However, such observations are confined to a certain fixed situation in the individual’s social setting. In this kind of observation, individuals tend to avoid taking into account of situations which is inconsistent with their “ findings” (Taylor & Kowalski, 2004). They are easily refuted by experiments and research as they are conducted systematically and did not come from mere human observation. Various scenarios and control experiment are involved to ensure that the results have no room for disputes. Differing from the flawed “ common sense” theory of human behaviour, the results which proved that rewards does not enhance performance are unchallengeable as they are supported by facts which can be tested and reiterated by professionals (Coon & Mitterer, 2012). Only by involving in psychological research can one actually see a fair and non-biased perspective of human behaviour. Reasons behind thwart performance can be explained scientifically through experiments. They are supported by the science behind human behaviour. Therefore rewards does not give, or rather impair performance.


Bijleveld, E., Custers, R., & Aarts, H. (2011). Once the money is in sight: Distinctive effects of conscious and unconscious rewards on task performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 , 865-869.

Cherry, K. (n. d.). What is Functional Fixedness in Psychology? Retrieved from Psychology – Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts: http://psychology. about. com/od/problemsolving/f/functional-fixedness. htm

Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. (2012). Introduction to Psychology: Active learning through modules. Wadsworth, Ohio: Cengage Learning.

Glucksberg, S. (1964). Problem solving: Response competition and the influence of drive. Psychological Reports, 15 , 939-942.

Hagger, M. S., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2011). Causality orientations moderate the undermining effect of rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 , 485-489.

Jordon, P. C. (1986). Effects of an extrinsic reward on intrinsic motivation: A field experiment. Academy Of Management, 29(2), 405-412.

Olivers, C. N., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2006). The beneficial effects of additional task load, positive effect, and instruction on the attentional blink. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 32 , 364-379.

Panagopoulos, C. (2013). Extrinsic Rewards, Intrinsic Motivation and Voting. The Journal of Politics, 75(1), 266-280.

Qian, G., & Guzzetti, B. (2000). Conceptual change learning: A multidimentional lens. Reading & Writing Quarterly , 1-3.

Taylor, A., & Kowalski, P. (2004). Naive psychological science: The prevalence, strength, and sources of misconceptions. The Psychological Record, 54(1), 15-25.

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