Blinded by Science * Can Recognition Really Be Tested in the Lab?

In the last month, two reports hit the news on intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards and why non-cash incentives are preferable to cash. While both research reports ultimately support our position of the value non-cash, intrinsic rewards, I couldn’t help but find fault with the research.

In the first case, Psyblog reported research on How Rewards Can Backfire and Reduce Motivation. Using children between ages three and four who all enjoyed drawing, the research proved that those children who did not expect a reward for drawing but received a surprise reward for their efforts actually spent more time drawing and enjoyed it more. “Those who had previously liked drawing were less motivated once they expected to be rewarded for the activity. In fact the expected reward reduced the amount of spontaneous drawing the children did by half.”

In the second case, Incentive magazine reported research due out next year that examined people’s propensity to say they prefer cash awards but then in fact actually want non-cash incentives more. The reason lies justifiability – with non-cash rewards people can choose a guilt-free luxury experience that they cannot justify when given cash. In the study, “those imagining receiving non-cash awards reported that they would be significantly more satisfied than those folks who had to imagine receiving a cash bonus. But when asked to choose explicitly, those with a choice overwhelming chose cash.”

So what’s wrong with the research? The same two aspects that are often the problem when recognition is tested in the lab:

1) Limited – In the Psyblog example, the subjects are very young children – not exactly the sophisticated individuals we work with everyday. While the research does show that intrinsic desires are better motivators, which is supported by a great deal of other research, I prefer to look to our many customers and their experiences as proof of the value of unexpected recognition of desired behaviors as more powerful motivators.

2) Limiting – In the Incentive example, a major fallacy of some portions of the research was dramatically limiting the choices presented to research participants. In a lab setting for control purposes, these limits are necessary but are certainly not realistic in the real world. Once again, our customers tell us one of the primary benefits of our program structure is the ability for their globally scattered employees to be able to choose a culturally relevant and personally meaningful reward, from thousands of options, without that burden of selection being on the administrator’s shoulders.

How do you read and filter the numerous research reports in this area? What’s your “lens” you read through?

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