The downside of user rewards systems

Jeremy Liew · August 15, 2008 · Short URL:

When can paying people become counterproductive

I’ve posted in the past about how points can be used to drive user behavior. Last week the Washington Post explored when play becomes work, and talked about some of the downsides of using rewards systems:

More than three decades ago, Edward Deci, a social and personality psychologist at the University of Rochester, found the first experimental evidence of a phenomenon with wide relevance to the way most Americans conduct their personal, professional and social lives.

Deci tracked a bunch of college students who were solving puzzles for fun. He divided them into two groups. One group was allowed to keep solving puzzles as before. People in the other were offered a small financial reward for each puzzle they solved.

The psychologist later evaluated the volunteers: He found that people given a financial incentive were now less interested in solving puzzles on their own time. Although these people had earlier been just as eager as those in the other group, offering an external incentive seemed to kill their internal drive.

The implication for social media and user generated content businesses is that creators create for love, not money, and that paying them with  money may in fact be counterproductive. Instead, creators want adulation.

One interesting counterpoint might be the gold farmers inside World of Warcraft. When people play MMOGs for money, do they still play for fun? Anecdotally, it appears that they do. So when do rewards work and when are they counter productive?

But rewards and punishments are not always counterproductive, Benabou said. He drew a distinction between mundane tasks and those that carry meaning for people. In the first case, Benabou argued, rewards and punishments work exactly the way economists predict: They get people to do things.

External rewards and punishments are counterproductive when it comes to activities that are meaningful — tasks that telegraph something about a person’s intellectual abilities, generosity, courage or values. People will voluntarily perform intellectually arduous work, for example, because it gives them pleasure to solve a puzzle or win a game of wits.

“If I pay my kids to do their homework, I am saying, ‘You will get this if you do your homework,’ but I am also saying, ‘Homework is not likely to have intrinsic rewards,’ ” Benabou said. To the extent that a child is doing homework because he or she enjoys the challenge, or wants to demonstrate intelligence and diligence, the homework has meaning beyond the task itself, and Benabou predicts that offering a reward will backfire.

In most cases when it comes to user generated content, the creators do consider their work to be meaningful. So pay attention to how you pay them attention.

(Source: For more from Jeremy Liew, go to his blog. Image source: Fandbpromotions)

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