Creative Studio


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Gamification: Punished by Rewards

gamification punished by rewards eugen esanu laroche.jpg

“Do this, and you will get that” is not always the best approach for rewarding people for a certain action. Why? If the reward is an extrinsic one (ex. money) then the interest in “this” will diminish over time.

When applying gamification techniques we tend to think that what works in real-life will also work in a digital environment, but that’s wrong. I personally have seen current apps on the market that are trying to motivate people, using gamification techniques with extrinsic rewards (money, fame, etc). 

The idea that everybody wants money is propaganda circulated by wealth addicts to make themselves feel better about their addiction .
— Philip Slater, Sociologist

This approach will most likely have good results in the short-term, but long-term behaviour will suffer. It is also important to distinguish between routine tasks like, who is going to pack the most boxes and creative activities. Numerous studies suggest that rewarding or simply thinking of a reward when doing a task that involves forming a good long-term behaviour will most likely produce average results. For example, becoming a great a leader. If you constantly think of your salary, bonuses or increasing company sales, and believe that a critical part of your job, you are more likely to sacrifice with your own people, collaborate less and many others.

If you have read my previous article on why extrinsic motivation does not work well, here are six more reasons. We should not aim for using extrinsic rewards as a motivation to do a task. Whether you use it with gamification techniques for your product or in real life:


People tend to choose easier tasks

Whenever you are offered a reward for doing a task, you will always tend to choose the easier/shorter path. Your thinking will be less creative and your final results will, most likely, have more errors than the person who did it purely for intrinsic reasons. (Condry, 1977, pp. 471–72)

It is better not to make merit a matter of reward. Lest people conspire and contend .
— Lao Tzu

People have trouble breaking the rules

If your goal is to induce compliance, extrinsic motivation is the best approach. In a research done by Barry Schwartz, a group of people had to figure out the rules of a game and think like scientists. The group has been trained in advance and promised a monetary incentive if they figure it out first and better than the other group. The group performed much worse than the one with pure intrinsic motivation. Also, they had trouble breaking the rules and thinking out of the box.


Short-term behaviour improves, but long-term one suffers

In one dietary study, two groups of people were given a certain period to lose weight. One group (A) wasn’t promised anything, only trained in how to lose weight, but the other one (B) was taught and also promised a monetary incentive. People from group B were paid $5 for each kg lost. In short-term, the group B outperformed group A. But in long-term, people from group B returned to their weight after the experiment was finished. Group A kept losing weight.


Extrinsic rewards diminish your creativity

Teresa Amabile, published two reports in which it was clear that using extrinsic rewards reduce your ability to think creatively. In one of the reports she writes about a group of young creative writers who merely spent five minutes thinking about the rewards their work could bring (money and public recognition) wrote less creative poetry than others who haven’t been thinking about that. Also, a great point here is that the quality of their work was also worse, than what they did earlier when not thinking about extrinsic rewards.


Rewards motivate repetetive approach to work

In another research, Barry Schwartz found that when we are rewarded for what we are doing, we become less flexible and innovative in the way we solve problems. Even if given different problems from current one. It happens because reinforcement encourages repetition of what has worked in the past and people are looking only for fastest and easiest ways to finish the task and get the reward.

If one finds some response pattern that works reliably to secure a reward, it is pointless and foolish to deviate from it .
— Schwartz and Lacey

Limited rewards reduces collaboration

More scarce a reward is, less collaboration you will have. If your goal is to make people work together for a certain task, don’t hand out limited amount of bonuses/rewards. This way you promote bad behavoiour and people will start thinking “how can I get it first?” and not “how should we collaborate?”. In this case, making the reward available to anyone is a great approach, because you motivate effort — anyone can get it — rather than only the best will get it.

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Minimising the bad effects of extrinsic rewards

The points from above may create the impression that any extrinsic rewards are bad, but they are not. It applies only in the case of if you want people to lose interest in what they are doing. For example, a person may enjoy reading books, but once you start giving him money for reading more, it will create a habit — read a book and receive a reward. Once the rewards stop coming it, that person’s interest in reading books will most likely diminish with time.

It is true that the most destructive way to use extrinsic motivators is to offer them for doing something that is potentially interesting in its own right .
— Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards

Get the rewards out of people’s faces

If you want to minimise the “bad” effects of extrinsic motivation for a particular task, reduce the importance or amount of it. There is research which suggests that more prominent an external motivator is, the more intrinsic motivation is undermined (Ross, 1975). Then it is better and also our job to make them smaller, less important. And also, don’t make a big fuss about when we give them.


Rewards should be offered as a surprise

What is the best way to offer a reward to a person? It does not have to associate it with what task it did before. 

Let’s take the example of a fitness app. You decide to increase the number of subscribers, from free to premium, and award a one-month subscription to a person when it is commited to using your app more. In our case, the “use your app more” could be translated to beating your own running record. 

Let’s say a woman did beat her own running record, and without knowing it in advance, she could receive as a reward a one-month subscription. This way you create a pleasant surprise for the work done. Also, it is important to note that this type of behaviour pattern must not be repetitive (each time she beats her own record) and should be unexpected (reward is given only second or third time she overcomes her own record). This way you don’t create an association of “beating my own record = reward”.

In the end, extrinsic motivation may be great for educating your home pet to behave better, but there’s clear evidence that it does not work well on human beings. It happens because we, by nature, are wired to intrinsic motivations. But in case you need to, try to minimise its importance and significance. Why? Because a person’s interest in the activity at hand will diminish with time for which it receives an extrinsic reward.

Humans, inherently have a desire to work and learn. It’s the poor choice of rewards that punish our behaviour and diminish our willingness to do a task at hand. Whether it is fame, money or any other extrinsic reward. Everything should be balanced and used with careful thought if you are about to implement extrinsic rewards.

Recommended further reading

Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards

Eugen Esanu