Why Timing Of Rewards Is So Important To Our Motivation

Not many topics are as hotly disputed as how and when to reward people at work.  Whilst many advocate passionately for intrinsic motivation being key, extrinsic rewards still factor heavily in the workplace.  A recent study from researchers at Cornell University provides some interesting context around the best time to reward someone when a deadline is looming.

It suggests that a good way to boost motivation on a task is to give ourselves an immediate reward rather than wait until the end.  The study found that doing this boosted our interest and enjoyment in our task, with intrinsic motivation levels increased such that activity continued even once the reward was removed.

“The idea that immediate rewards could increase intrinsic motivation sounds counterintuitive, as people often think about rewards as undermining interest in a task,” the researchers say. “But for activities like work, where people are already getting paid, immediate rewards can actually increase intrinsic motivation, compared with delayed or no rewards.”

The right timing

This is because the immediate reward tends to strengthen our association between the task and the ultimate goal we’re trying to achieve, which in turn makes us feel like the task is more rewarding.

The theory was tested in a number of experiments.  In one, for instance, participants were asked to complete a task to spot the difference between two images.  Some expected to receive a bonus as soon as they’d completed the task, whereas others expected it a month later.  When the bonus was given out immediately, participants received a 20% boost in their performance compared to the delayed reward group.

This was then replicated in a second experiment that compared the impact the timing of the reward had with the impact of the size of the reward.  Once again, the timing was crucial, resulting in nearly twice the boost to performance as providing a larger reward.

The researchers believe their work adds a crucial element to our understanding of rewards and their impact on motivation.  It suggests that smaller, yet frequent, rewards throughout a project can stimulate our motivation much more than larger rewards given at the end of a project.

It’s a welcome reminder that our belief that immediate rewards may dampen enthusiasm for the remainder of the project aren’t accurate.

“More evidence suggests immediate rewards are beneficial,” the authors conclude. “They’re a useful tool for increasing interest in an activity.”