International 100+ UltraRunning Foundation

Connecting Ultrarunners Across The Globe



Claire Dorotik LMFT

“Focus on the reward.” You’ve heard this before. “Keep your eye on the prize.” You’ve heard that one too. But do these idioms actually work? In the world of motivation, much attention has been paid to the typical carrot and stick principle. The logic has always followed that if a person creates rewards for herself, she will be more motivated to do the thing that leads to these rewards. Building off of the operant behavioral conditioning principles made famous by B.F. Skinner, considered the father of behavioral theory, these beliefs have led many business leaders, managers, coaches and teachers to ascribe to the idea that in order to get a person to do something, there must be a reward for it. According to Skinner, learning and motivation are dependent on changing behavior. In order to do this, a stimulus is designed to create a desired response, or new behavior. The more this habituated this pattern becomes, the more the person learns, and the greater his motivation becomes.

However, studies as far back as 1946 contradict this common belief. Harry Harper, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin was the first to discover that there is another reason animals and people do things. At the time, the accepted understanding of human behavior was confined to two basic drives: one for survival, and one for reward. Humans were thought to be motivated to ensure their survival demands for food and shelter first, and then were motivated to act in ways that led to a reward. When Harper set about to test this he presented rhesus monkeys with a small puzzle to solve. The puzzle consisted of a small door with a latch that required removing one pin, sliding another and lifting the latch, a three step process. Harper’s idea was to first socialize the monkeys to the puzzle and then present them with small rewards for any one of the steps that would lead to successful solution of the puzzle. Yet in the time that Harper was allowing the monkeys to become familiar with the puzzle, they began to solve the steps on their own, without reward. As they did, they continued to play with the puzzle. Within forty-five minutes, every monkey had solved the puzzle, without reward. Fascinated, Harper presented them with another puzzle. Again, the monkeys immediately began to attempt to master the puzzle. Solving this one faster than the first, Harper presented them with another puzzle. The monkeys became so interested in solving the puzzles Harper put in front of them, that soon there were cracking them within five minutes. Amazingly, the monkeys did all of this without a single reward. It appeared to Harper that they were motivated by another drive. This drive seemed to coming from a need to learn, discover and master the puzzles. It was not an external force that was influencing the monkey’s behavior, rather it was clearly an internal factor. For this reason, Harper named the drive “intrinsic motivation.” Harper described this form of motivation as a desire to explore our own unique skills and abilities, find creative solutions, and learn new information. This drive, unlike the other two drives was for it’s own sake. Where the survival drive is about a desire to achieve the things that ensure survival, and the reward drive is about a desire to attain a reward, intrinsic motivation is about an internal need to learn.  

Surprisingly, when Harper tested this form of motivation against the more accepted form of motivation by using rewards, the monkeys solved the puzzles less quickly. At the time, unfortunately, Harper was admonished for his ideas and gave up the research. It wasn’t until 1969 that another researcher, Edward Deci, tested Harper’s ideas. A then graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, Deci used two groups of people and rubix cube puzzles to study the differences between external and internal motivation. Both groups were brought into a room and seated at table that had three magazines, seven cube puzzles, and a rubix cube. The participants were to re-create each puzzle using the rubix cube. After each successful solution, Deci took the puzzle off the table and the participant was to start on the next one. After the third puzzle, however, Deci told the participant that he would need to leave the room to input his results into a computer in order to proceed. He then left the room for eight minutes and observed the participants behavior through a one-way mirror. This entire procedure was done three times, with one subtle difference. On trial two, Group B was told that they would be paid six dollars for each successful puzzle solution. On trial three, however, Group B was then told that they would not be paid for the solved puzzles as Deci had run out of money. Watching the participant’s behavior through the one way mirror, Deci discovered something interesting. On the first trial, both groups played with the puzzles for an average of four minutes before reading the magazines. On trial two, after being told they would be paid for puzzle solutions, group B played with the puzzles for an average of six minutes, while group A remained the same (four minute average). On trial three, something interesting happened. While group A’s play time remained consistent at four minutes, group B’s play time decreased to an average of 60 seconds. The addition of an external reward actually had a negative effect on behavior. From this study, Deci ascertained that the use of extrinsic rewards tend to decrease intrinsic motivation.

In his new book Drive, author Daniel Pink explains that there are seven core principles explaining just how extrinsic motivation (rewards) decreases intrinsic motivation. According to Pink, they are:

  • Extrinsic rewards tend to decrease intrinsic motivation. Because the focus of the activity is on attaining a reward, as oppose to the value of the activity itself, rewards get in the way of finding internal reasons for performing a behavior. 
  • Extrinsic rewards diminish performance. As seen in the studies above, rewards decrease performance. Basically rewards turn play into work.
  • Extrinsic rewards curb creativity. When the focus is on finishing the activity as quickly as possible in order to get the reward, the sense of creativity is lost. Using creativity to find novel solutions to complex problems leads to skill development and an increased sense of mastery, two very important components of motivation.
  • Extrinsic rewards decrease good behavior. When the focus of an activity is on the reward that will follow, the tendency for impatience, anger and frustration increase.
  • Extrinsic rewards encourage unethical behavior, such as cheating. Again, focusing on the reward leads to an “anything goes” approach to getting the reward. 
  • Extrinsic rewards increase the risk of addiction. The reward itself can become addicting, especially when the focus is solely on the reward, and the intrinsic value of the activity is lost.
  • Extrinsic rewards promote short term, not long-term focus. As long as the reward is present, the desired behavior will continue, however, once the reward is removed, the behavior will cease. Long-term behavior change requires a long-term focus beyond the immediate reward.

Motivation is tricky business. There seem to be as many different theories of motivation as there are areas of life in which to apply them. However, there is one thing we know for sure. The carrot and stick principle is outdated, and we must re-examine our current understanding of motivation.