The hidden cost of the reward

The hidden cost of the reward

When we knowingly reward someone, especially children, we do so with the intention of reinforcing a behavior or an attitude. However, we often incur what is called the hidden cost of the reward. That is to say, an involuntary and hidden cost that ends up undermining the intrinsic motivation of the person for the current activity.

Let's take an example. This phenomenon tries to explain why people are more creative when they draw and write for pure interest (intrinsic motivation, MI) only when they do it for a reward or an expense (extrinsic motivation, ME). In other words, we are talking about paradoxical cases in which external rewards reduce motivation.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

In the first place, in order to explain the effect of the hidden cost of the reward, it is necessary to clearly distinguish the two types of motivation. The intrinsically motivated behaviors are those that we spontaneously perform for the pure pleasure or interest that their performance implies. These are the ones we execute in the absence of any form of reward, incentive or external control. Therefore, these activities are not only means "for", but are erected as an end in themselves.

For its part, Extrinsic motivation comes from incentives and consequences in the environment. It results from a contract of conduct to "do this" (required behavior) and to obtain "that" (contingent price).

At first glance, behavior may seem intrinsic or extrinsic. But the fundamental difference between the two lies in the source that energizes and directs the behavior. In MI, it comes from the spontaneous satisfaction of a psychological need that the activity itself provides. In EM, it comes from external motivations and consequences.

Interference in learning

People distribute rewards while waiting for the other person to benefit from increased motivation and performance. But in doing so, these extrinsic valuations interfere with the learning process and the development of autonomous self-regulation. This is one of the explanations of the hidden cost of the reward.

Imagine that parents always reward their son by giving him money when he gets good grades. After a few repetitions of this behavior, the schoolboy will only seek to cram to have satisfaction. In other words, he will not develop intrinsic motivation to improve his understanding, but just to study to receive something in return.

People will be more creative when they are motivated primarily by interest, pleasure, satisfaction and the challenge of working for themselves, rather than by outside pressures.

In simple terms, to oblige or over-induce people, even with attractive rewards, such as money, encourages the re-reasoning of the execution of this task: reasons related to autonomy and those related to the environment (Deci et al., 1999).

Expected and tangible rewards

Expected rewards undermine intrinsic motivation, while unexpected ones do not. But according to the nature of these reinforcers, the hidden cost of the reward is more or less accentuated.

Tangible rewards (money, prizes, trophies) serve to exert a form of control over behavior. They are often used in different contexts (family, education, work) to encourage people to do something they would not do otherwise.

However, according to many studies, unwelcome tangible rewards and non-homework rewards have no negative effect on MI. They do not increase it or diminish it. Remember that these are the ones the person receives regardless of his performance. On the other hand, conditional rewards with participation, completion, and performance in this activity decrease IM.

In what activities does it work to motivate us?

There are times when extrinsic motivation also works and where, therefore, there is no hidden cost of reward. In other words, there are exceptions in which incentives, consequences and external rewards are beneficial. More precisely, it is aboutactivities that have a low intrinsic interest.

Some of them are: participating in recycling tasks, saving energy, driving according to traffic rules or increasing the participation of older people in physical activities. In all these activities, it is useful to reward good behavior. Since, otherwise, their task would not be actively carried out.

The hidden cost of extrinsic reward versus intrinsic motivation is limited to activities in which there is already an interest in itself.

As you can see, there are always two ways to enjoy an activity. If we play a musical instrument to entertain ourselves, exercise and develop valuable skills, we will do it intrinsically. If we only do it for the sake of making money, prizes and trophies or impressing others, it's the extrinsic path. Which way do you identify: one, the other or both?

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