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What is the best motivator Rewards, fear, or future success

What is the best motivator: Rewards, fear, or future success?

11 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

What is the best motivator to encourage someone to do well? This blog looks at the three different ways you could motivate someone: rewards, fear, or future success. 

Let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages of each as well as the research behind them to see whether one way is better than the others…

Are rewards the best motivator?

The story about the professor and his flowers

There is a famous story that an old psychology professor would tell his students. An old man came home one day to find that the beloved flowers in his front garden had been trampled on. Determined to find the cause, he took watch the next day and quickly discovered the local children were using the flowerbed in his garden as a football goal. They loved playing and were so immersed in their game that they didn’t realise the damage they were causing. The old man decided to run an experiment to see if he could protect his flowers.

The old man went outside and beckoned the children over. He told them he also loved football and wanted to reward them for playing. He said that he would give each child five pounds for each day they played in his front garden. The children were delighted and the next day quickly collected their earnings. The old man said he may have over-estimated his funds; he said that the next day he would only be able to pay them three pounds each. Disappointed, but still eager to earn money, the children played the next day. Afterwards, the old man apologised and said he had run out of money and would be unable to pay for them to play the next day. The children, annoyed and frustrated with this, refused to play without pay and never turned up again. The old man was left to enjoy his flowers once again.

The science behind rewards as a motivator

The moral of the story is that financial rewards can reduce someone’s intrinsic motivation. But is there any evidence of this? A recent study looked to answer this very question. Participants were asked to learn a set of Swahili-English word pairs. Half of the participants were offered a reward for doing so, the other half were not. After an initial study phase, participants were given the opportunity to study the words during their free time. The results? Participants who had not been offered a reward spent more time studying during their free period. The researchers behind this study suggested that the rewards had undermined and negatively impacted participants’ intrinsic motivation and self-regulated learning behaviours.

This finding is echoed in research on paying for blood donations. Some countries pay for people to donate blood (Russia, China, Germany and America) whereas others don’t (France, Australia, England and Japan). New Zealand recently considered going from voluntary donations to paying for it. They found that 52% of their donors said they would stop donating if they were financially rewarded for doing so. Clearly, financial incentives have some impact on intrinsic motivation.

Cash for grades?

This has interesting implications for how we help motivate young people, especially at school. 38% of students report being offered a financial incentive to do well in their A-levels, with some being offered up to £2,000 for an A*. Other incentives have been known to include laptops and holidays. As well as parents offering these rewards, we have seen a growing increase in the use of end-of-year trips or proms as a reward for good behaviour.

The Sutton Trust investigated the effect of incentives on pupil attainment in Britain. Their randomised control trial involved over 10,000 pupils in 63 schools. They found that incentives, such as an end-of-year trip or an event, had some positive impact on classroom behaviour and effort, but had no significant impact on GCSE results. It wasn’t all bad news as pupils with low prior attainment made an average of 2 months’ extra progress.

Overall, they conclude that “the main messages seem to be that there are more effective methods for raising the attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals than offering them financial rewards. The effort and cost of running incentive schemes seems to run counter to the impact they have“.

Not so clear cut?

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of Think Like A Freak, think the debate around cash for grades is not so clear cut. They argue that research showing that cash doesn’t improve grades doesn’t prove that money is a bad motivator, just that those studies may not have been offering enough.

Consider the amount of daily effort that is required from a student to go from a D to a B in order to earn a £100 reward. This includes turning up to school more, paying more attention in each class and doing all their homework. When you break this down into an hourly rate, it can sound like a lot of work (especially to a disengaged student) for not much reward. They wonder: if students were offered £10,000, would this increased incentive impact on their behaviour and results?

Educational Psychologist, Jere Brophy agrees, suggesting four areas that should be considered when rewarding students:

  1. Offer rewards for meeting standards or skills that require a lot of practice or repetition
  2. Rewards can be motivating if students believe they have a chance to earn the rewards
  3. Rewards must be valued by students
  4. Rewards are most effective if delivered in a way that also provides meaningful feedback

Point 2 above is interesting. If someone sees someone else getting a “better” reward, or feels that they can’t earn the same reward, it can be very demotivating. 

Summary: The pros and cons of using rewards as a motivator

On the plus side, rewards and incentives for a particular behaviour can lead to increased effort; however, this comes at a cost, both financially and potentially on an individual’s intrinsic motivation. With budgets in many schools already stretched, and without wanting to hinder our students’ motivation, we are inclined to agree with the Sutton Trust finding that there are more effective ways to raise student motivation and attainment. 

Boost your students’ motivation with training that introduces them to the seven key habits of successful people.

Is fear the best motivator?

The science behind fear as a motivator

Loss aversion refers to people’s preference for avoiding losses rather than looking to acquire gains. Some people claim that, psychologically speaking, losses can be twice as powerful as wins.

In America, there is a big debate about whether teacher pay should be linked to student achievement, and if so, how best to do it. Researchers wanted to see if they could tap in to the powerful effect of loss aversion. They divided teachers into two groups. One group of teachers was paid a $4,000 bonus at the start of the year and told they would have it to repay it if their students did not do well. The other group was told that they would receive their bonus at the end of the year if their students did well. The result? The students whose teacher received the bonus at the start of the year increased their Maths scores by 10% compared to students with similar backgrounds. The students whose teacher was offered the bonus at the end of the year did not make similar gains.

There has also been research on how this affects students as well as teachers. One of the authors of Freakonomics is a big believer in the power of loss aversion and believes that if you decide to financially reward students getting good grades (a practice that is becoming popular with many parents in the UK), then it should be framed as loss, not a gain (e.g., “Here is £20, if you fail I am taking it away.”).

Fear: Not so clear cut?

The problem with focusing on loss aversion, or playing to people’s fear, is that it may be a short-term motivator. If it goes on for too long or if there is too much fear, it can result in a fear of failure. A fear of failure has been associated with pessimism, stress, unstable self-esteem, cheating and low resilience. This is not just limited to students. Teaching has become highly pressurised, due to the need to meet targets, being observed and Ofsted inspections. Recently, Sir Cary Cooper, a professor in organisational psychology, said that out of the 80 jobs he has studied, teaching ranks in the top 3 of the most stressful. 

Implications for schools

Due to growing exam pressure, some schools are publicly ranking student’s attainment, presumably in a bid to motivate students through the fear and embarrassment of being at the bottom of the list. A recent report by the National Union of Teachers found that an overt focus on exams is damaging students’ mental health and self-esteem, and that drilling for tests has narrowed what children are learning. The Sutton Trust have highlighted a study where pupils were paid £80 at the beginning of each half-term and were told they would lose £10 if they didn’t do well enough in their attendance or behaviour, and £30 if they underperformed on their classwork or homework. The result? It did not significantly improve GCSE results. The Sutton Trust believe more effective strategies exist.

Summary: The pros and cons of fear as a motivator

On the plus side, fear and loss aversion can be a powerful motivator, maybe even more so in some situations than rewards; however, there is a cost. Too much focus on what you stand to lose if results are not good can lead to a fear of failure, thus crippling confidence and demotivating both staff and students.

So, is future success the best motivator?

The story about Muhammad Ali

Recently, author, Daniel Pink stated that “carrot and sticks are so last century.” The problem with rewards is they can hinder intrinsic motivation, and too much fear can lead to stress and anxiety. Is there a better way to motivate someone?

In the early 1960s, boxer Sonny Liston fought champion Floyd Paterson for the heavyweight title. In one of the most one-sided fights in history, lasting all of 2 minutes, Liston knocked out the champion with a devastating left hook. The re-match, a year later, had the same outcome and lasted only four seconds longer. Sonny Liston was the undoubted heavyweight champion of the world and the dominant boxer of his time. Legendary British boxer Henry Cooper was reported to have refused to meet Liston in the ring, saying that he “wouldn’t even want to meet him walking down the same street.”

In 1964 Liston agreed to fight a rookie boxer, Cassius Clay (later to be known as Muhammad Ali). Before the fight, 43 of the 46 ringside reporters tipped Liston to win. Clay surprised everyone by beating the champion and going on to be one of the greatest boxers of all time.

How did he do it? Muhammad Ali was known for training hard. His coach, Angelo Dundee, said, “I never had to ask him to come to the gym. He was always first in and last to leave.” Ali himself once famously said, “I hated every minute of training. I said suffer now and live the rest of my life as a champion.

The science: Act now for future you

Was Muhammad Ali tapping into a powerful concept that helped motivate him in his career? Ali didn’t enjoy the act of training, but he knew it would benefit him and help him achieve his dream of being world champion. Psychologists call this “identified regulationwhich refers to the motivation to do a task that in itself isn’t enjoyable but may be important to help you achieve your goals in the future.

One way to help improve this is to explain to someone why the task they are doing will help them in the future. Several studies have examined exactly this, especially for tasks that students perceive as boring.

Study 1: Learn a new language

Participants were taught phrases in Chinese in a very boring way. They were divided into three groups. Some were not given any reason for the task; others were told they should try hard because it is what’s expected of them. (In this group, words such as “should”, “must”, “have to” and “ought to” were emphasised.) The third group were told it would help them in their future career. The result? Those who had the explanation as to why this skill may be useful to them put in much more effort.

Study 2: Maths equations

Students received an uninteresting lesson for 20 minutes. The lesson was designed to be as tedious as possible. Prior to the lesson, the students had been split into two groups; the first was given an explanation as to why this lesson would be useful to them, whereas the second group was not. The results? Those who had been given the rationale were deemed to be more engaged in the lesson, were more motivated and learnt more. As well as explaining how a particular task can help future career goals, there are other ways of increasing this type of motivation. One such way is doing a task that may be unpleasant now but will make you feel good in the future. We previously mentioned a study looking at how some countries pay for blood donors (Russia, China, Germany and America) and others don’t (France, Australia, England and Japan). One country hoping to tap into the concept of ‘Acting Now For Future You’ is Sweden. Instead of paying for donations, they now send a thank you text to the blood donor when their blood is used in an operation. It is thought that people are more encouraged when they know that their actions in the present have made a difference in the future. They also have a stronger sense of self satisfaction. The text message ticks both the boxes.

Practical considerations

So how can we tap into this motivation? One suggestion would be to provide a (brief) rationale before someone does a task on how said task will help them in the future. This would suggest that we have been doing lesson objectives wrong. It is not the “what” that we should be covering, it is the “why”. The research suggests just 3 minutes would be enough.

However, this may not be as easy as it sounds. Some students may be unable to make the connection between what they are being asked to do and how it will benefit them. This may be because they don’t know what they want to do in the future. Also, 30 students may have 30 different visions for the future, so tapping in to each of these for every task would be difficult and time consuming.

Another possible roadblock is that students may not believe in the rationale being given to them. Trust is a big mediator of behaviour. One famous study told participants not to eat the marshmallow placed in front of them. If they could wait for a while, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows. Those who did not trust the person giving them the instructions were only able to wait for 3 minutes before giving in to temptation; whereas those who trusted the instructor were able to hold out for over 12 minutes. If students don’t believe what they are being told, their motivation will suffer.

Final thoughts

This blog has looked at three different possible ways to motivate someone: rewards, fear or personal future success. Each has pros and cons, and no one size fits all. The best advice we can give is to get to know the student you are trying to motivate and appreciate the complexity of their situation as well as the possible consequences of each different motivator.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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