For Better or Worse: Recognizing the Impact of Incentives

I struggle at motivating my 17-year-old boy to live like a human. My efforts—threats, cajoling, reasoning and money—to keep rodents and insects from invading my home through the trash dump that is his room are not effective. I turn to the beloved Otis, the psychologist, for help. “Dearest, the size and form of your incentive to comply are important factors here,” Otis said, his eyes wide as he remembered my ranting in anger at the nest of ants I found in dirty dishes. “But there’s a third and even more important factor—your target’s perception of your incentive. Sometimes the mere presence of an incentive can communicate negative information. For example, offering people an incentive could lead them to perceive that you distrust their competence in completing a task or that you’re trying to control their behavior.”

I stared at him befuddled. “Hell yeah I’m trying to control his behavior! I may have to get the house deloused because of him!”

Gently he said, “Yes, but it isn’t working, is it?” Grudgingly I admitted that it is not.

“In these situations, those incentives can lead to worse performance as noted by the work of Falk & Kosfeld in 2006,” he continued.

(An aside: Lord, I hate it when I’m in a rant and he makes references!)

“In fact, those two examples—a perceived lack of competence and a perceived lack of autonomy—are the two most commonly cited perceptions that determine whether your incentive will elicit intrinsic or extrinsic motivation as noted by Deci & Ryan in 1980. What we are looking for is intrinsic motivation that will last a lifetime, or at least through the weekend. If you appear to distrust his competence and don’t allow autonomy, he will not be intrinsically motivated.”

“So how can I offer an incentive that won’t make it seem like I distrust my son’s competence?” I asked, perplexed. “Hard to do, as I totally do not trust his competence.”

Otis explained that there are generally two main types of incentives:

Engagement-contingent: an incentive that is given for engaging in an activity (e.g., a parent rewarding her child if he avoids squalor) Performance-contingent: an incentive that is given only if some standard of performance is met (e.g., a parent rewarding her child if he can walk unobstructed from the door to the bed)

“According to researchers, engagement-contingent rewards result in worse performance because they devalue a person’s competence, whereas performance-contingent rewards result in higher performance because they promote competence (Houlfort et al., 2002).”

I am still not feeling it, as Otis clearly saw from my scowl.

“If your target perceives your incentive as an attempt to control his behavior by making an offer like, ’Clean your room and get movie tickets,’ then he is more likely to develop extrinsic motivation (if any motivation at all),” Otis said. “Even simple phrasing, such as the word ‘should’ (e.g., ‘you should do _____ for _____’), can trigger feelings of control and worsen performance (Ryan, 1982). The ‘clean your room’ offer is engagement-contingent, not performance-contingent. It is a ‘yes/no’ on compliance versus a ‘how well you did’ measure.”

Still not getting it.

“Honey, religiously reward any positive behavior you see with things that are not money or like money, with things or words that are insignificant justification for the desired action. Use things and words that contribute to him seeing himself as a person who keeps a clean room to build that self-label within him. Ignore the negative, just like you do at work with fundraisers.”

Otis put my own words in a blender and served them to me as a smoothie.