How Extrinsic Motivation Influences Performance
Put simply, people want motivation: to change their behavior, to get better at a behavior, or to develop better habits. These are common in the sports training and wellness apps industry. Apps like Nike+, Strava, and Wahoo Fitness are designed to help consumers do exactly this.
And when it comes to the mechanism, there’s a clear choice: extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic drivers are simply much easier to implement within an app. These techniques take many forms: from tracking ‘running streaks’, to digital rewards such as tokens, to displaying leaderboards so you can feel good about beating your friends.
Each of these provides a simple extrinsic reward, which pushes the behavior along. With the right structure, these rewards can also establish habits as well.
So far so good: they can be easily productized, coded into an app, and they reliably drive behavior. However, the world of extrinsic rewards is not without its downsides.
In certain situations, they can actually undermine performance. Consider the following perspective on marathon running, from Adam Alter’s book Irresistible.
Since running performance exists on a normal distribution, we might expect that marathon finish times would as well. But they look very different in actuality. The times aren’t normally distributed but clustered around these “goal times,” and followed by significant drop-offs. The distribution of marathon times looks like this:
Why is that? In the form of finish times, these goals pushed runners that extra bit further. If that 3 hour finish time is just within reach, you’ll run that extra bit faster to get there. We’ll enjoy that accomplishment for the time being, but once we reach it, we start all over with the next one. As you can see, these extrinsic goals only take us so far.
Oliver Burkeman spoke about this phenomenon in a recent article for The Guardian:
“When you approach life as a sequence of milestones to be achieved, you exist “in a state of near-continuous failure.” Almost all the time, by definition, you’re not at the place you’ve defined as embodying accomplishment or success. And should you get there, you’ll find you’ve lost the very thing that gave you a sense of purpose—so you’ll formulate a new goal and start again.”
This constant strain is similar to the concept of the ‘hedonic treadmill,’ a feature of our consumer behavior. We feel certain we’ll finally be happy once we meet our consumer goals. Whether it’s getting the newest car, the newest iPhone, or our millionth follower on Twitter, we feel convinced that once we get this, we’ll finally feel content.
But just like marathon finish times, achieving them feels good for the time being. But once we reach them, we’re left in the same place: looking for the next goal to strive for.
The Psychology Of The Overjustification Effect
In a word, extrinsic rewards are fleeting. They’re great in the short term, but they tend to dissipate long-term. But the downsides of extrinsic rewards don’t end there: they can also have a negative impact on our intrinsic drive.
This can be seen, for example, in children’s art. Most kids simply love to draw. Leave a child with a stack of blank papers and a coloring set, and they’re all set. Some will draw for hours on end, without interruption and without any need for prodding. Like Darger, their motivation is completely intrinsic; they do it simply because they enjoy it.
How can you get a child to stop drawing? Tell them you’ll give them a dollar for every picture they make.
That’s right. The most efficient way to stop this behavior is to give them an extrinsic reward. There’s a slight uptick when the money is first given, but it’s all downhill from there. As the dollars start to accumulate, their drive steadily declines. And before long, the child loses interest in the activity altogether.