How Monetary Rewards Can Demotivate Creative Works

from the it's-the-link dept

Back in April, I wrote a post about Daniel Pink's new book, Drive, in which he highlights the rather stunning amount of counterintuitive research that suggests that money can actually make people less motivated to do creative works. Since then, I got a copy of the book myself, but it's in the stack with about five books that I want to get to before it, so I may not get to it for a while. However, a lot of folks have been passing around this great video of a 10 minute presentation that Pink did, which was then whiteboard animated. It's really well done and fun to watch and basically summarizes the idea in the book:
The same point is made in the presentation, but it clarifies it a bit. It's not that money isn't important. That finding would make little sense at all. As people note all the time, you need to be able to make money to survive. But, it's that once people have a base level of money that makes them comfortable, using monetary incentives to get them to do creative work fails. Not just fails, but leads to worse performance. As we noted in the original blog post about this, my initial inkling was that this highlighted a point often forgotten by economists and non-economists alike: while marginal benefit is often considered in terms of dollars, that doesn't mean that cash is the the equivalent of marginal benefit. That is, you can't just replace other benefits with cash. Sometimes people value other types of rewards even greater than the equivalent in cash. And, Pink's book and presentation highlight how it's often things like meaning and working on something fulfilling that are much more beneficial to people than cash. So it's not that money is bad for creativity -- but that having a direct pay-for-performance type scheme seems to create negative consequences when it comes to cognitive work (it works fine for repetitive work, however) -- and other types of non-monetary rewards are a lot more effective.

And while it isn't discussed in the presentation (and I don't know if it's discussed in the book), I wonder if the high monetary rewards in a "if you do this task, we'll give you $x amount" manner actually has a strong cognitive cost. That is, the pressure to then do the task well in order to "earn" that money actually ends up causing a creativity cost that takes away from the output. When you're just doing creative work for non-cash rewards, the pressure doesn't feel quite as strong. When you put the dollar signs in, it adds mental costs, and those costs outweigh the cash rewards. It's even possible, then, that the higher the cash reward, the greater the mental costs.

Related to all of this, Clay Shirky has also just come out with a new book, Cognitive Surplus (which isn't yet in the pile on my desk, but probably will be soon) that builds on an idea that he's talked about for years: about how all these claims that people doing stuff online for free is a "waste" totally misses the point. For the past few decades, people have devoted billions of hours to watching television. Yet, with the internet, rather than watching TV, they're actually doing some creative work (sometimes for free). So when looked at in isolation, doing stuff for free may seem weird, when combined in the larger scheme of things as a substitute for mind-numbing TV watching, it's actually a huge advancement.

Wired had the smart idea of having Shirky and Pink sit down and chat with each other, and they rehash some of these ideas, and how the concepts put forth in the two books seem to overlap. Moving people away from merely consuming content towards creating content leads to a huge boost in creativity and creative output -- exactly what we've seen happening. And, it's not because of monetary incentives -- in fact, it's often because of the exact opposite.

The more you think about it, the more this all makes sense, and the more you realize just how screwed up so many incentive structures are today, because so many people think that purely monetary incentives work best.

Filed Under: behavior, clay shirky, daniel pink, drive, economics, money, motivation


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jun 2010 @ 9:03pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "I'm not getting screwed by the music industry because I can find so much legal free music that I don't have time to listen to what is already out there."

    But there is something you need to understand. Control over public airwaves and cable didn't happen over night. It took a long time for special interest groups to gain the level of control they have today. Yes, you can find all this content, but how much of it can you easily find outside the Internet (now you may argue that you can order some of it from people across the country, but we're also assuming you never had the Internet to communicate with others and view web pages when it comes to being able to track down who makes this content and where you can access it. We mean NO Internet which includes everyone you know from the Internet and who they know, and the ability to use the Internet to track down entities and businesses and find interested artists, etc...). Before the Internet was popular it would have been very difficult. Don't just assume that special Interest groups can't coerce the Internet just like they have managed to coerce everything outside the Internet and don't assume that just because you can find content on the Internet that your life isn't being made more difficult by the laws outside the Internet. If there were a decent amount of unlicensed bandwidth it's possible for wifi Internet access and unlicensed wireless communication to travel miles through walls. Laws make it very expensive and infeasible for local governments or malls or whoever wants to to set up a wireless access point to do so. With decent unlicensed spectra a lot more can be done in terms of communication and whatnot. and lets not forget about all the government funded R&D that winds up being published in journals that hold the copyright to them and hence you have no access to them without paying a second time. There are many ways our lives are being made more difficult because of broken laws. Don't underestimate it. and the fact that restaurants often avoid having bands and musicians and playing free music because of the threat of expensive lawsuits. If someone at a store ripped you off for $5 you would be outraged. The laws in place rob us of so much more, society should be far more outraged.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.