In 1973, a team of researchers went into a nursery school and found a group of children who seemed to enjoy drawing. They then divided these children into three groups. The first group was told beforehand they would receive a reward (in this case, a special certificate) for drawing. The second group also received the reward upon drawing, but were not told about it ahead of time. And the final group received no reward for drawing.
They came back awhile later and invited the children to draw again. One group of children wasn’t interested in drawing any longer (even though all of them had been avid artists before the researchers came along). Which group was it?
If you guessed the first group, congratulations. You’ve identified what’s known as the overjustification effect.
Should I reward my community members with stuff?
The classic (and often default) motivators we use every day can hurt our communities. By offering these extrinsic motivators, you can make people complacent, bored, unresponsive, and harm their inherent ability and desire to learn or accomplish even the smallest of tasks.
How this can happen is quite simple: you learn about gamification, decide it’s a great new strategy to employ (and the word is so fun to say), so you set up a series of digital badges to give away to your community members for certain tasks, like starting a discussion, uploading a new resource or blogging. Every time a member completes a task milestone and receives a badge, you send out a thank you email and maybe even a $5 coffee gift card.
What happens when you run out of badges and can’t afford any more gift cards?
We don’t have to try to adapt psychological theory to fit this question. Researchers are already testing motivations within online communities, and the results are exactly what we would expect.
Studies show contributions sparked by intrinsic motivations -- like a desire to stand out as an expert or help others -- are higher quality than those sparked by extrinsic motivators, like badges, prizes, and other tangible rewards.
That’s the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Daniel Pink lays it out pretty well in his TED talk: offering tangible rewards for cognitive tasks just doesn’t work. In fact, it can have an adverse affect on completing tasks and accomplishing goals. Additionally, it devalues community content by taking the focus off the audience and onto the potential prize.
Should I completely axe all external motivators?
Not exactly. There are ways to motivate extrinsically without hurting your community. One should be obvious if you recall the experiment with the artistic children that started us off: make your prizes unexpected. In May, send a prize to the person who shared the most popular resource within the community. In June, send a prize to the user who replied to the most questions. Just don’t tell them you’re doing this ahead of time.
Treat it not like a contest to be won, but a thank you gift that comes from helping others. Accompanying that gift with a handwritten note giving honest praise and gratitude makes it all the better.
Or, if you’re excited about using digital badging for gamification, make sure to have some badges that are difficult to acquire, because they reward quality as much as quantity: things like recommended posts, posts marked the best answer, or how many times a resource they’ve shared has been marked as someone’s favorite. By doing this, you can further motivate your users to take those tasks to the next level.
Think about it: would you rather have your users posting advice for other community members because they want to help them out and show off their expertise a bit, or because they want to get a gift card?