Motivation: We don’t need more carrots or sharper sticks

What really motivates us to do good, meaningful, satisfying work? You may be surprised to know that science tells is it’s not just about the money. At the recent  Apple Education Leadership Summit, Dan Pink drew on the science of motivation to challenge commonly held assumptions about motivation and then outlined the three true motivators.

Outside the Charlie Brown Cafe, Singapore

Folklore or science? A study was undertaken by four economists in North America. Three groups were presented with physical and cognitive challenges with different levels of incentive. In each group the top performers would receive:

  • Small reward
  • Medium reward
  • Larger reward

What difference does a monetary reward make?

For straightforward, mechanical and rule based work – financial reward proved a motivating factor. Pink call this the ‘if/then’ motivator – same as the carrot and stick. However, for more complex, creative and conceptual tasks, if/then rewards  – financial or otherwise tangible – don’t work was well.

Much of what we are seeking for students requires greater cognitive thinking and is less mechanical –  which means the if/then rewards won’t necessarily motivate students, nor will they encourage the highest quality response.

Why do we keep getting more carrots and sharper sticks if this clearly doesn’t work? We are using folk law rather than science.

What happens when we reward an enjoyable activity?

Researchers observed children who chose to draw during their free play time at day care. The children were divided into three groups, each receiving:

  1. an expected award – draw to receive an award
  2. an unexpected award – asked if they wanted to draw, if they decided to they were handed a certificate
  3. no-award – asked if they wanted to draw, but didn’t promise a certificate at the  beginning, nor gave them one at the end

Two weeks later these children were observed at the day care centre through a one way mirrors at free play time to find children who loved drawing. The result:

  • ‘Unexpected award’ and ‘no-award’ drew just as much and with the same enthusiasm as before the experiment.
  • ‘Expected award’ showed much less interest and spent much less time drawing.

If-then rewards had a negative effect. A normally enjoyable activity had lost its joy.

It’s not just about the money

Teachers compensation is a global point of discussion. The current trend is suggesting a move to merit pay. The idea is linking teacher pay rates to student achievement.  This is only a relatively new issue, so there is only one rigorous study, undertaken in Nashville. The study commenced with two groups

  1. Ordinarily pay
  2. Pay measured against benchmarking maths scores on a scale, receiving up to $15k US bonus

It was found that the incentive had no effect on student outcomes

At what point in the creativity process do constraints become inhibitors?

Teresa Amabile, a leading researcher on creativity recruited 23 artists and asked them to select 10 commissioned and 10 non-commissioned works. Amabile gave the works to experts to review the pieces on creativity and technical skill. Their findings:

  • Commissioned & non-commissioned works were  identical in technical quality
  • Commissioned works were  significantly less creative
  • No difference in technical quality of either

Pink summarised that a few constraints are fine, but there is a point that constraints limit creativity.

In our schools there is little, if any non-commissioned work. How is this impacting creativity in schools?

What works in motivating people?

Money is definitely a motivator – so start with paying people enough to take money, as an issue, off the table. Then look at the other factors.

But what matters more than money  to encourage intrinsic motivation suggests:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose


Management is the problem. It’s an 1850s technology. “If classrooms, schools and people are managed effectively we’ll get compliance”. But more important than management is ‘engagement’. We don’t engage when we are being managed. It is only when we can achieve results under our own steam are we truly engaged. Who is the best boss you ever had? It is not usually a controlling one, but a boss who uses the language of autonomy and high standard. Compare this with best teacher you ever had.

Intrinsic motivation is at its height when we can have autonomy concerning our:

  • Time – when we do it
  • Task – what we actually do
  • Team – who we do it with
  • Technique – how we do it


This is the desire to get better, to improve. It’s satisfying and it’s fun. Biologists can’t explain the desire for mastery. It is experienced in:

  • What we were doing
  • How we feel
  • Why feel that way

Our most significant motivator is making progress at work. Do I want to come back the next day? If I am making progress I do.

People want to make progress, but progress relies on feedback and the workplace is often a feedback desert.  As an employee – does the right kind of  feedback help you with mastery? How do you think it would help your students?


Dan Pink related a story about his daughter doing her homework around the kitchen table. As a five or six year old she was excited by the grown-up concept of homework, but by 10 she couldn’t understand why. Pink was caught out by the question.

Folklore just says kids need to do homework.

This blogpost is my summary of the notes of Dan Pink’s presentation at the Apple Education Leadership Summit, 2011. As I read his book, DRiVE, I will think a little more about these concepts and share further (and briefer) thoughts from an educational context.

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