A friend of mine told me the story of an elderly man who enjoyed reading a book or newspaper on a bench at the local park.
Everyday, he would go to his favourite bench to sit down and read, all the while enjoying peace and quiet, the fresh cool breeze and the lush greenery that surrounded him.
One day, two little overexcited boys would appear.
They would chase each other, play fight, shout, scream, run around frantically, frolic in the mud, and cry to their mothers when one accidentally hurt the other.
The man consoles himself by thinking that they’ll soon get bored and finally go away and he’ll be able to read his book in peace. But five minutes go by, ten minutes go by, fifteen minutes go by and they’re still boisterous in their play.
After many minutes of what seemed like a tiny eternity to the old man – playtime was over and the two boys were escorted out of the park by their mothers.
I barely got any reading done, the old man thought to himself.
The man gets up and leaves, hoping that he’ll be able to read his book in blissful peace tomorrow.
The next day the man returns with his book and notices that the park is as empty as ever.
He reads his book and relishes every sentence, thoroughly enjoying his time at the park.
Then he hears a child’s giggle.
And then he hears a couple of children giggling and stomping, mumbling unintelligible utterances – the two little boys were there the next day.
And the next.
And the next.
A cold realisation dawned on the old man.
The tranquility of this once forgotten pocket of the world suddenly ceased to exist.
The man is displeased. How do I make them stop playing here he thinks to himself.
And how do I do it in an ethical manner?
One day, when the boys were playing, the old man called them to approach him as he were sitting on the bench.
Nowadays, it might come across as strange if you were to see an elderly person beckoning two younger children from afar, pleading for them to come closer.
Once the boys approached the old man, he gave them £1 each.
“I’ll pay you each one pound if you continue to play here, and I’ll pay you each the same amount if I see you playing here tomorrow.”
In an instant, the boys accepted the money and then scurried away joyously to resume what was hell on earth for the old man.
The following day, the children would run up to the man, ecstatic to collect their £1 each.
As promised, the man would give them their due reward.
The same ritual occurred the next day, and the next.
One day, the children approached the old man and extended their little palms toward him, eagerly waiting for their pound.
“Could we get our pounds, please?” they squeaked.
“I won’t give you any money,” said the old man. This frustrated the two boys.
“Well,” they started, angrily, “in that case – we won’t play here anymore!”
The old man never saw the two little boys ever again.
Intrinsic v.s. Extrinsic Motivation
What just happened there?
In the beginning, the two boys would come to the park just to run around and feel the wind on their face, to play with each other, and laugh and cry in joy without a care in the world.
The kids loved playing in the park. It was a source of great joy, something they did out of their own volition. They were intrinsically motivated to play in the park.
But when the old man told the children that he would pay them to play in the park, the focus of the kids’ motivation changed.
They were no longer intrinsically motivated but extrinsically motivated.
That is, they expected an external form of reward to motivate them to continue playing in the park.
Their playtime became contingent on receiving monetary reward.
They no longer ran to feel the wind on their face or feel the grass poking at their soles.
They played for money.
When the man stopped paying the children – the boys’ focus shifted to the unfairness and anxiety of the situation and so they rebelled and refused to play.
Payment clouds intrinsic motivation
In fact, recent studies show that paying people for good behaviour like donating blood can even cut blood donations in half.
By paying a blood donor, you’re crowding out their intrinsic motivation to do good in the world.
Similarly, if parents reward their children for taking out the trash, they’re doing themselves a tremendous disservice.
Rather than encourage their children to do a good deed stemming from intrinsic motivation, paying them will cloud this motivation out.
This means that not only will the parents have to pay the children to take out the trash whenever needed, but they may even have to be increase the payment to get the same level of compliance.
Payment forces one to forfeit autonomy and control
Imagine a painter who paints for a living.
A painter doesn’t always know when he’ll manage to sell his next painting.
But the painter paints anyway, knowing that someday down the line – someone will buy his work.
In the meantime – his intrinsic motivation is what sustains him.
His love for painting is what keeps him going.
The painter will paint just because he just loves the feeling he experiences every time his brush connects to the canvas; he enjoys the pursuit of mastery and perfection, the energy and excitement he experiences when painting something he’s never tried before…
The painter paints whenever he feels like it, for however long he wants.
The painter paints out of passion.
And so whenever he manages to finish a painting – he tries to sell it.
“If they took away my paints, I’d use pastels.
If they took away my pastels, I’d use crayons.
If they took away my crayons, I’d use pencils.
If they stripped me bare naked and threw me in a jail cell – I’d spit on my fingers and paint the cell walls.”
However, if a customer requests a particular painting and pays him to do the work, this clouds out the painter’s creativity and intrinsic motivation to do it.
Importantly, this ‘if-then’ reward forces the painter to forfeit some of his autonomy and control over his schedule.
This affects his enjoyment of the process and his ability to paint on his own terms – whenever he feels like it.
In a nutshell:
- Shifts the focus to extrinsic motivation,
- Stifles creativity,
- Crowds out intrinsic motivations,
- Forces a loss of autonomy and control.
P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.
Thank you to Philip C. for telling me this story.