Will incentives increase motivation?

When we talk about gamification for behaviour change, we regularly receive the question will incentives increase motivation? The answer really depends on the situation and the individual.

When I think back to deciding to run the London and New York marathons, it was my personal goal and motivation to take on a big challenge that was the real motivation. The medal and t-shirt reward for finishing was the added bonus and recognition that I had achieved my goal. But at the same time, I have to admit, some of the shorter races in preparation of the big one, I entered for the t-shirt at the end.

When I studied for my degree and MBA, the certificate at the end of the 4 and 3 years respectively was what I was after to open doors to a career path that I wanted to pursue. I have also completed lots of shorter courses where the main motivation for taking them was my curiosity into the topic. I have also started a bunch of online courses and never continued to finish the certificate because I got what I wanted to know out of them anyway.




Incentives have been used to motivate salespeople for years and they tend to align with specific goals to achieve them. For sales forces, this has proven to work very well and continues to do so, providing the rewards are achievable and often consist of smaller milestones on the way to a big recognition.

When it comes to other professions, peer recognition from knowledgeable peers is more appreciated than any incentive. Invention or disproving a theory may be the best incentive for a scientist. In learning, it may just be the pursuit of knowledge rather than a place on a leaderboard or a badge that drives a person to learn more.

In economics, we find the concept of marginal propensity returns, where the first incentive gives the biggest reward and subsequent rewards diminish in effectiveness. I personally believe it is the same with motivation if we look at incentives as external motivational factors.

The strongest motivation is always the internal or intrinsic one, this is where a person will continue striving towards the goal despite criticism and challenges. An incentive can help to keep going along the way, but it wouldn’t change the path a person is on.

How to know whether to incentivise or not, is test it out and measure the result. Also test when you take away the incentive, whether you then also take away the motivation to take action. If this is the case you probably have externalised an internal motivation and replaced it with an expectation of an external reward. My advice and suggested best practise is to use incentives sparingly and mindfully, so you don’t fall into the trap of externalising intrinsic motivation.

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