Extrinsic Motivation: Recognition and Monetary Value

I want to consider to what degree rewarding people with money or honours for doing some admirable act is problematic. Rewarding someone with money or honours is a form of extrinsic motivation. To be clear, acting from an extrinsic motivation means being motivated to perform an action by virtue of gaining some reward or avoiding some punishment external to the action performed. This can be contrasted with intrinsic motivation in which one is motivated to perform the act by the nature of the act itself, rather than some reward or punishment.

One reason why extrinsic motivations are problematic has been made clear by Michael Sandel, among others. This stream of criticism argues that when extrinsic motivation takes on a monetary form it will tend to crowd out intrinsic motivations. Consequently, if we pay children to read, the intrinsic motivations to read will be crowded out by the extrinsic motivation for money, such that children will only read if they are paid. Thus the way that extrinsic motivation crowds out intrinsic motivation is problematic as the effect of this “crowding out” is that people seems to be blind to the intrinsic value of an activity and reduce it to a means of making money.

If this criticism applies to monetary extrinsic motivations, there is no reason why it would not apply to non-monetary extrinsic motivations. For example, if we decided to give children awards and social prestige for reading, this too would tend to crowd out intrinsic motivation as children begin to only read if they receive recognition and prestige for doing so. Thus, if we are troubled by the negative effects of monetary extrinsic motivations, we also have reason to be troubled by the use of non-monetary extrinsic motivations.

The preceding raises many questions about a variety of social practises, but one that I would like to highlight is the use of grades. Grades are both a measure to see how well someone has understood the material for a course, and an extrinsic motivator. Many people take great pride in getting good grades, and strive to get their A, because of the positive recognition that getting the A confers. As a result the formal practise of grading may tend to crowd out the intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake, as people only learn when they get the positive reinforcement and recognition that is associated with getting a grade. If this is the case then the practises of most educational institutions are pushing aside the intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake.

However, the non-monetary extrinsic motivation that grades present is less problematic than a form of monetary extrinsic motivation as monetary extrinsic motivations have no connection to the meaning of education, whereas grades have a substantial connection to the meaning of education. Getting an “A” in a course can signify one, some or all of the following: diligence, intelligence, being knowledgeable, attentiveness and industriousness. All of these values are related to education. We educate ourselves to become more intelligent and knowledgeable, and we must recognize that being truly committed to educating ourselves requires that we are diligent, attentive and industrious, as there is always more we can learn. Therefore, those who are motivated by the extrinsic motivation of grades want to be seen as being intelligent, knowledgeable, industrious, attentive and diligent. Now while their desire is still only to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable etc. The fact that they want to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable shows that they esteem these values, and if they esteem these values they are more likely to esteem the value of education on its own account, because if someone esteems the value of being knowledgeable they are likely to see the quest for knowledge as something that is valuable on its own account. Thus, while this extrinsic motivation may crowd out intrinsic motivation it can also reinforce intrinsic motivation because the meaning of the extrinsic motivation is related to the intrinsic value of education. Consequently, we can see someone quite effortlessly going from being motivated to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable and diligent, to being motivated to possess these qualities as they are a constitutive element of what it means to be an educated person.

On the other hand, a person who was motivated to do well in school in order to get money does not necessarily esteem any value that is associated or connected with education. Consequently, in this particular case, while grades and monetary rewards can both crowd out intrinsic motivations, money is a much more problematic extrinsic motivation as it has a much stronger tendency to crowd out intrinsic motivation as there is no connection between having lots of money and valuing education. The two are certainly not mutually exclusive, but valuing one will not tend to ensure that one values the other.

The preceding tells us that non-monetary extrinsic motivation can help support, and will not necessarily, crowd out intrinsic motivation. However, this is only so when the meaning of the non-monetary extrinsic motivation is connected with the meaning of the goods intrinsic to the practise. If we gave someone a non-monetary award for doing well in a skiing competition and this award suggested that they were generous and kind, this would certainly crowd out intrinsic motivation as the award has no connection to the particular excellences of skiing. But, if the award signified that they were a fair competitor and that their landings were very clean this could tend to reinforce intrinsic motivations associated with skiing. Thus, if a non-monetary extrinsic motivation has a meaning that is connected with the excellences intrinsic to a particular practise it will not necessarily crowd out the intrinsic motivations of that practises. Contrastingly, if a non-monetary extrinsic motivation has no relation to the meaning of the practise then it will crowd out intrinsic motivation.

In light of the fact that post-industrial liberal democracies rely on monetary and non-monetary extrinsic motivation we must necessarily be careful to ensure that these do not crowd out intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, if we have to use extrinsic motivation we should rely more heavily on non-monetary extrinsic motivations that relate to the meaning of the practise for which they are a reward or punishment, and avoid spreading monetary extrinsic motivation into all spheres, or relying on non-monetary extrinsic motivations that do not connect with the meaning of the practise for which they are a reward or punishment. If intrinsic motivation is crowded out our practises become less enlivening and rich and as a consequence our own excellences will be degraded.


3 thoughts on “Extrinsic Motivation: Recognition and Monetary Value

  1. Pingback: Extrinsic Motivation: Recognition and Monetary Value | Ethics Beyond Compliance

  2. Very interesting. I agree with your prescriptions, but wouldn’t you agree that non-monetary extrinsic motivators are useful for drawing people to certain activities, so that they may develop for themselves an appreciation for the intrinsically motivating factors of the activity, even when the extrinsic motivators do not have the relevant connection to the intrinsic motivators? It seems it would be just to provide non-monetary incentives to shoppers to buy healthier foods, even when there is no connection between the extrinsic value of the incentives and the intrinsic value of healthiness. If I understand you correctly, then it seems you are suggesting that extrinsic rewards that have some connection to the intrinsic rewards of the activity are more likely to succeed in instilling in persons an appreciation for the intrinsic value. When it comes to healthy eating, or providing disincentives for the consumption of harmful products such as tobacco and alcohol, I am not sure that this is true.

    • Thanks again for your insightful comments.

      I was suggesting that non-extrinsic motivators that are related to an activity are more effective at allowing people to see the intrinsic value of an activity. But equally importantly I was trying to argue that there is less of a danger that non-extrinsic motivators that relate to an activity will lead to a situation in which the extrinsic motivator crowds out intrinsic motivators, than if the extrinsic motivator is unrelated to the activity.

      I do see value in using extrinsic motivators that are unrelated to the activity to get people to engage in an activity so they can then discover the intrinsic value of the activity, but my fear would be that because the motivator is unrelated to the practise it is more likely to become the point of doing the activity, and consequently inhibit the agent’s ability to appreciate the intrinsic motivators. For example, it seems plausible to think that if we reward someone with honours relating to the agent’s kindness when they engage in healthy eating, it is more likely that they will only eat healthy to achieve these honours, than if we were honouring someone for their commitment to a healthy lifestyle.The reason I say this is that if an honour is unrelated to the activity we tend to see the practise as more of a mere instrument to achieving that reward, whereas if the meaning of the honour or reward relates to the practise, we can see the connection between the values constituted by the reward and the practise itself. But this is ultimately an empirical question and not one that can easily be solved through argumentation, so I could very well be wrong.

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