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* Does Personal Gain Inspire?

Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke, weighs in on the subject of motivation and inspiration in an editorial piece for the New York Times on November 20. He asks the timely question, “’What’s the Value of a Big Bonus?’” [1]

Ariely presents research that suggests that Campbell’s postulate about inspiration (see posting of February 10) is true. In controlled tests, Ariely first used small, medium and large bonuses and incentives for subjects to do well in tasks that demanded attention, memory, concentration and creativity. The most striking result was that while those offered small or medium bonuses performed at the same level, those offered the larger bonuses “did worse than the other two groups across all the tasks.”

The researchers replicated the study at MIT, this time testing the impact of the bonus performance of cognitive skill tasks and mechanical skills tasks. Aha! As long as the task was purely mechanical, the bonus worked to accelerate performance. But when cognitive skill was involved, the higher bonus actually resulted in worse performance.

To complete the logical cycle, Ariely then tested the impact of social pressure on cognitive skill performance. Again, the “bonus” of social approval actually was counter-productive. Apparently, social pressure “has the same effect that money has” — even though subjects want to perform better when they are scrutinized, they don’t.

Conclusions? One would be that incentives that are only self-serving actually have an adverse affect on cognitive performance. If so, what kind of incentive would actually contribute to better performance?

Send your opinion!


[1] Ariely, Dan. “What’s the Value of a Big Bonus?” New York Times, November 20, 2008, Op-Ed.

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