Edward Deci: The Link Between Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation

Deci's experiment explored the mechanisms that underlie our motivation. It examined why we act in a certain way and not another. In this article, you'll get to know a little more about it.
Edward Deci: The Link Between Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation

Last update: 29 June, 2022

Edward Deci conducted an experiment to study the link between rewards and intrinsic motivation (not linked to external reinforcement). In other words, when an individual does something because they enjoy it and feel like doing it.

The question posed in Deci’s experiment was: what happens if an individual enjoys doing something and is given a reward for it, but then it’s taken away? What he wanted to discover was whether intrinsic motivation was affected when a reward was introduced and then withdrawn. The results were extremely interesting.

Deci’s experiment was conducted in 1971 and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. His conclusions are considered applicable to the field of parenting, education, work, and sports, among others. Let’s take a look.

The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it .”

-John Ruskin-

Reward Motivated Woman

Background

Before Edward Deci considered the possibility of studying the link between intrinsic motivation and reward, similar questions had already been raised by other authors. Some, like Festinger and De Charms, suggested that it could lead the person to give more importance to the reward than to the pleasure of doing something.

Other authors thought that a reward would fulfill the function of reinforcing the motivation  already present. All of this was guesswork. A test was needed, and Deci’s experiment set out to do it.

Deci hypothesized that material rewards for doing something we like would lead us to change. In one way or another, we’d come to think that we carry out this activity for the compensation we receive and not because we like it.

Therefore, our intrinsic motivation would decrease. For example, if your hobby was collecting postage stamps and you were suddenly given a material reward for it, over time your pleasure in the activity would lessen and you’d focus more on the rewards you receive for doing it.

Deci’s experiment

Deci’s experiment was a laboratory study in which participants undertook three one-hour sessions of puzzle-solving. The experimental and control group both had to solve four puzzles. The only difference was that the experimental group was paid a dollar per puzzle to solve it correctly.

During each of the three sessions, the participants were left alone in the room for eight minutes. They were told by the researcher that they could do anything they liked in this period. The hypothesis was that if the experimental group participants chose to work on the puzzles when they weren’t being rewarded, then they must be intrinsically motivated to perform that activity.

The results showed that the experimental group spent less of their free-choice time working on the puzzles due to having previously carried them out for rewards. In other words, they’d lost their intrinsic motivation.

A dollar, representing the experiment of Edward Deci.

Results

Edward Deci concluded that the participants who were more motivated in the activity increased their interest in doing it when they were given a reward. However, when this was withdrawn, their motivation decreased markedly.

Thus, money was found to have a negative impact on motivation. It led to participants putting the pleasure of doing the work in the background. Therefore, it was concluded that the offer of material rewards isn’t always a good idea.

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  • Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105–115. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0030644