Barry Schwartz laughs as he describes the little girl next door who suddenly dove into reading after a substitute teacher took over her elementary school classroom. For every book they read, recalls the Swarthmore College psychology professor, students received a point, which they later cashed in for prizes. The girl then started to read a book an hour. The only catch was that she picked her books based on the number of pages and type size, and “she couldn’t tell you anything about any of them,” he says.
Schwartz shared this story about the binge-reading neighbor during a conference call with Yale University associate professor Amy Wrzesniewski explaining their research on motivation. The scholars have been carrying out a longitudinal study of more than 10,000 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to determine the relative success of those who were motivated by intrinsic rewards versus those driven by “instrumental,” or extrinsic rewards.
They assumed that some combination of internal and external motives would lead to the most success, as measured by the officers’ willingness to stay beyond the five-year commitment to the Army and to graduate and become commissioned officers. In fact, they found that cadets who expressed the most intrinsic motivation were more successful than those who showed mixed motives to serve. In other words, those driven to attend West Point motivated in part by internal forces, like the wish to become a fine officer, were more successful in their pursuits than those driven by extrinsic rewards, such as the desire to get a good job after graduation.
The same subtle interplay between motivation and rewards is also at work when it comes to education and learning, say Schwartz and Wrzesniewski. Rewarding students for getting their schoolwork done with prizes, snacks and even grades, as most schools do, can have the unintended effect of dismantling a child’s drive to learn for its own sake. The intrinsic rewards that come from exploring interests in depth, and mastering difficult concepts and problems, can be smothered by a reward system that focuses on grades, say, rather than understanding. It also signals what’s important to the teachers.
“When you dangle Burger King in front of kids’ noses, you are telling them what kind of consequence matters, and what motive to pay attention to,” Schwartz says. “And education will suffer.”