For Better or Worse: Recognizing the Impact of Incentives
I struggle at motivating my 17-year-old boy to live like a human. My efforts—threats, cajoling, reasoning and money—to keep rodents and insects from invading my home through the trash dump that is his room are not effective. I turn to the beloved Otis, the psychologist, for help.
“Dearest, the size and form of your incentive to comply are important factors here,” Otis said, his eyes wide as he remembered my ranting in anger at the nest of ants I found in dirty dishes. “But there’s a third and even more important factor—your target’s perception of your incentive. Sometimes the mere presence of an incentive can communicate negative information. For example, offering people an incentive could lead them to perceive that you distrust their competence in completing a task or that you’re trying to control their behavior.”
I stared at him befuddled. “Hell yeah I’m trying to control his behavior! I may have to get the house deloused because of him!”
Gently he said, “Yes, but it isn’t working, is it?” Grudgingly I admitted that it is not.
“In these situations, those incentives can lead to worse performance as noted by the work of Falk & Kosfeld in 2006,” he continued.
(An aside: Lord, I hate it when I’m in a rant and he makes references!)
“In fact, those two examples—a perceived lack of competence and a perceived lack of autonomy—are the two most commonly cited perceptions that determine whether your incentive will elicit intrinsic or extrinsic motivation as noted by Deci & Ryan in 1980. What we are looking for is intrinsic motivation that will last a lifetime, or at least through the weekend. If you appear to distrust his competence and don’t allow autonomy, he will not be intrinsically motivated.”
“So how can I offer an incentive that won’t make it seem like I distrust my son’s competence?” I asked, perplexed. “Hard to do, as I totally do not trust his competence.”
Otis explained that there are generally two main types of incentives:
- Engagement-contingent: an incentive that is given for engaging in an activity (e.g., a parent rewarding her child if he avoids squalor)
- Performance-contingent: an incentive that is given only if some standard of performance is met (e.g., a parent rewarding her child if he can walk unobstructed from the door to the bed)
“According to researchers, engagement-contingent rewards result in worse performance because they devalue a person’s competence, whereas performance-contingent rewards result in higher performance because they promote competence (Houlfort et al., 2002).”
I am still not feeling it, as Otis clearly saw from my scowl.
“If your target perceives your incentive as an attempt to control his behavior by making an offer like, ’Clean your room and get movie tickets,’ then he is more likely to develop extrinsic motivation (if any motivation at all),” Otis said. “Even simple phrasing, such as the word ‘should’ (e.g., ‘you should do _____ for _____’), can trigger feelings of control and worsen performance (Ryan, 1982). The ‘clean your room’ offer is engagement-contingent, not performance-contingent. It is a ‘yes/no’ on compliance versus a ‘how well you did’ measure.”
Still not getting it.
“Honey, religiously reward any positive behavior you see with things that are not money or like money, with things or words that are insignificant justification for the desired action. Use things and words that contribute to him seeing himself as a person who keeps a clean room to build that self-label within him. Ignore the negative, just like you do at work with fundraisers.”
Otis put my own words in a blender and served them to me as a smoothie.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.