Motivating Other People

Notes from a talk I gave in the ILRT research seminar series, 21 August 2003:

We tend to see the motivation of other people as simply a task of correctly applying the “carrot” and the “stick”. Surprisingly though, cognitive psychology has shown that the “common sense” view of motivation is often counterproductive. The implications are important for managers who want to motivate employees, teachers who want to involve students in learning and innovators who want others to adopt their new ideas. This session will consider various experiments that bear on motivation.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic

Let’s start with a simple distinction:

Extrinsic Motivation

  • An exercise of someone else’s power over the subject
  • Depends on a contingency that failure will turn out worse for the subject than success.
  • Working as someone’s subordinate
  • Examples: Gold stars for kids, grades for students, bonuses for workers
  • When the boss/parent is no longer providing the reward, no incentive to work well (when the cat’s away, the mice can play)

Intrinsic Motivation

  • Comes from the subject’s own goals
  • Does not depend on external contingency.
  • Working on own or as someone’s “partner”
  • Endures

What’s the psychological importance of this distinction?

The Key Finding…

  • When intrinsic motivation already exists, extrinsic motivation decreases it.
  • Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) “Undermining Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Reward: A test of the ‘overjustification’ hypothesis” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol. 28, pp. 129-137. doi:10.1037/h0035519
  • Children were given a task which they enjoyed (drawing with crayons).
  • Those who were promised a glossy certificate for good drawings showed less enthusiasm and did worse drawings than those who were not rewarded.
  • Many (70+) replications, with different classes of subjects! [See for example C. M. Mueller and C. S. Dweck (1998) “Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75(1):33-52.]
  • Adults were offered money to donate blood. Fewer gave blood than a control group who were offered no money.

I’m grateful to Dave Beckett for pointing out the relevance of this finding to software engineering. Most software is created as part of a programmer’s job or a piece of work for which they are contracted. Other software, usually open-source, is created in the programmer’s spare time, driven by their intrinsic interest in the task. In some cases at least, the free software is better quality. The Lepper et al. experiment suggests that work done from intrinsic motivation is better quality than that done for reward.

What’s bad about reward?

A-Level results are being given out today. Some pupils are getting ten pounds from their parents for each top grade. Though this would seem to be a kind and reasonable thing for the parents to do, I argue that it is potentially very counterproductive:

  • Implies that the task must be unpleasant, because you have to be paid to do it.
  • Reinforces an unequal relationship rather than a peer relationship
  • Conveys that the requester’s support for the requestee is not unconditional.
  • Can be taken as punishment in disguise.
  • Creates an artificial situation which will not apply when it is most important to be motivated
  • Contributes to tension with peer group (“Teacher’s pet”, “Mummy’s boy” etc.)
  • Envy from those who did not get the reward.
  • Relieves the requester of the burden of finding a task which is actually interesting for the requestee to do.
  • Discourages personal ownership of the task.
  • Rewards self-centered thinking

Note the equivalence of reward and punishment: “I will give you ten pounds for each top grade” is equivalent to “I will give you fifty pounds as a present but take away ten pounds for each subject which is not the top grade”. When you phrase it that way, it sounds harsh.

Principle of Commitment

We’ve seen that appealing to someone’s intrinsic motivation to do a task is much more interesting than providing a bribe. However, sometimes there isn’t an intrinsic motivation to appeal to. In the next few slides we will look at some psychological principles that are known to be effective in changing others’ behaviour. In their grossest forms, these are the devious tricks used by used car salesmen. In more benign forms, these are principles that we use a lot of the time without realising.

  • Freedman and Fraser (1966) “Compliance Without Pressure: The Foot-in-the-Door Technique” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
  • 2 or 3 times as many people agree to a large, inconvenient request if they have first agreed to (and performed) a related, minor request.
  • The two requests can come from unrelated sources! Two weeks apart in the case of this experiment.
  • NB: More compliance despite increase in the total inconvenience.

Homeowners in suburban California were asked to put up huge “drive carefully” billboards in their gardens. The minor request was for them to sign a petition to promote careful driving.


  • Regan (1971) “Effects of a favour and liking on compliance” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
  • Fake experiment ostensibly about art appreciation. “Joe” does a favour for the subject. Joe sells raffle tickets to subject.
  • Subjects buy twice as many tickets when he does the favour. Even those who dislike Joe still buy tickets.
  • NB: Unconditional reward, given in advance, and irrelevant to the behaviour it tries to motivate.
  • Reciprocity is a deep, instinctual (“hard-wired”?) principle of behaviour.
  • A common method for salesmen, supermarkets, beggars to affect your behaviour.

Reciprocal Concessions

  • Ask for more than you want, then retreat.
  • This is one way of making the subject feel that it is their own choice.
  • [Cialdini example]
  • This is a counterpart to the Foot-in-the-Door technique


  • Unconditional reward can change behaviour by effecting self-image.
  • Miller, Brickman and Bolen (1975) “Attribution versus Persuasion as a Means for Modifying Behaviour” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol 31(3) 430-41
  • Pupils were praised for leaving the room in a tidy, litter-free state (even though they were leaving lots of litter).
  • These pupils subsequently dropped much less litter than control groups. Similar results with other tasks.
  • This method is much more effective than persuasion, and at least as effective as straight reinforcement.

Words into Action: Hypocrisy Induction

  • Aaronson, Fried and Stone (1990) “Overcoming denial and increasing the intention to use condoms through the induction of hypocrisy” American Journal of Public Health
  • Students accept all the arguments for using condoms, but don’t actually use them.
  • Task: make instructional video for other students, using examples from their own experience.
  • Lasting positive effect on condom use from this “hypocrisy induction” technique.
  • Effect does not appear if students do not have to refer to their own experience.
  • Model for uptake of innovative technologies?

More Reward, Less Effect

  • Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) “Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology
  • Subjects who have carried out a boring task are paid to tell others that it is exciting.
  • When the amount paid is small, there is a lasting effect on perception of the task. Increase the reward, and this effect goes away.
  • Very strongly replicated with all sorts of tasks.
  • Lesson: give minimal incentive necessary.

A Simple Procedure

  • Is there an existing intrinsic motivation?
    • If so, don’t offer contingent rewards
    • If not, give the minimum incentive necessary.
  • Is there a mismatch between verbal acceptance and action? If so, make the subject aware that the mismatch is visible.
  • Keep the subject aware that she has made the choice herself.
  • Give unconditional support.

PS: Metacognition

  • Justin Kruger and David Dunning (1999) “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6. 1121-1134
  • Subjects were given tests of logical reasoning, grammar and ability to spot humour. They also rated themselves compared to the other subjects in the experiment.
  • Those were were worst at the tasks were also dramatically worst at assessing their own abilities: they showed an especially high Superiority Bias. Improvements in their skill result in a lowering of their self-rating.
  • So: when training people for a task, train them in the metacognitive task of distinguishing good work from bad work, rather than the task itself. Once they can appreciate a good end product, they will have intrinsic motivation to

Key Readings

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