What Does Science Tell Us About Rewards?

Many people assume that the most effective way to persuade people to do something is to dangle a carrot in front of them.

But does the science back up the use of incentives and rewards?

In one classic study, Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper and his colleagues asked two groups of children to create some drawings using crayons and paper.

Before being allowed to start, one group was told that they would receive an elaborate ‘good player’ medal for drawing, while the other group were not given the promise of any reward.

A few weeks later the researchers returned, handed out drawing paper and crayons, and measured how much the children played with them.

Counter-intuitively, those who had received the medals in the first experiment spent significantly less time drawing than their classmates.


According to Lepper, the awarded children were thinking something like: “Hmm. Adults usually only offer me rewards when they want me to do something I don’t like doing. An adult is offering me a gold medal for drawing, therefore I must not like drawing.”

The effect has been replicated many times. The conclusion? Rewards transform play into work.

But what about rewarding people for tasks they usually dislike?

Psychologist Richard Wiseman ran a study inviting two groups of people to spend an afternoon litter-picking at a park in London, and told they were part of a study examining how best to persuade people to look after their local parks.

One group were paid well for their time, while the others were only given a modest amount of cash.

After an hour or so of strenuous, tedious work, participants were asked to rate the degree to which they had enjoyed the afternoon.

You might think that those clutching a decent wedge of cash would be more positive than those who had given their time for little money.

In fact, the result was exactly the opposite.

The average enjoyment rating of the well-paid group was just 2 out of 10, the other group’s 8.5 out of 10!

Again, the take-out is that people are inclined to think ‘people usually pay me to do things I don’t enjoy. I was paid a large amount, so I must dislike tidying the park.’

In contrast, those who received less money thought, ‘I don’t need to be paid much to do something I enjoy. I did the tidying for very little, therefore I must have enjoyed cleaning the park.’

Some studies have shown short-term boosts in performance via rewards, but over the long haul, too great a reward can destroy the very behaviour they’re designed to encourage.

So what does that mean for you and your remote sales teams?

  • Ensure rewards are realistic and not too excessive.
  • Small surprise rewards AFTER the activity has been completed are also effective in making people feel positively inclined towards what they’ve just undertaken.
  • And following up the desired behaviour with feel-good comments that encourage them to pursue the activity are also helpful in embedding behaviours.

All of which Sales Staff App can help you with.

Give us a call to discuss how we can use real behavioural understanding to get you the results you want from your resellers, marketing partners and sales staff.