Demotivating Carrots – Why does being rewarded makes us less motivated to work hard?

17192453_1258040027648602_93466684054592656_oIt goes without saying that everyone knows what a reward is, and they have them selves received one in some sort of shape of form. The dictionary’s definition of a reward is:

Reward: A thing given in recognition of service, effort, or achievement.

The feeling of being rewarded is often a great feeling, recognition from someone else for example, makes us feel great and puts a smile on our face. Why do rewards feel so good though? Dopamine!

In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by neurons (nerve cells) to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior.

Dopamine is a chemical reaction, which was first thought to control only good feelings and motivate us but research has found that dopamine is also produced during high levels of stress. A two sided example of this would be that dopamine is produced in high amount during these two situations:

  • Being rewarded after working hard on a school project.
  • Hearing the sudden attack of enemy gun fire while fighting in a war.

It is very obvious which of these two scenarios is more desirable but this leads me on to explain what dopamine does in our brain and how that translates to further motivation. The mesolimbic pathway, is the pathway in which reward-motivations is ‘created and stored’. The release of Dopamine after an unexpected reward creates information to travel along the mesolimbic pathway in your brain and store information about what caused the reward. To put it into simple example:

  1. A young child is asked to sit in front of a slice of cake for 5 minutes without eating it. If they are able to do this, they are rewarded unexpectedly with a reward of two slices of cake.
  2. The mesolimbic pathway creates an ‘information store’ in their brain (Sitting still for 5 minutes = being rewarded with 2 slices of cake)
  3. If the child is asked to do the same study next week without any mention of a reward they will surely sit there for 5 minutes as they expect 2 slices of cake instead of the one.

This simple explanation looks like that (in an ideal world) people can be conditioned to work hard (control their urges to eat some cake for 5 minutes at age 6) if they are rewarded for doing as instructed. This is not the case at all: If someone expects a reward the motivation for doing something becomes external instead of internal. As soon as you expect a reward for completing a task the task becomes work instead of play. A perfect example of this from a study regarding artists and their motivation: One reaction from an artist talking about the difference between painting for fun or painting a request:

Not always, but a lot of the time, when you are doing a piece for someone else it becomes more “work” than joy. When I work for myself there is the pure joy of creating and I can work through the night and not even know it. On a commissioned piece you have to check yourself & be careful to do what the clients want.

Doing something because you want to (internal motivation) is so much more motivating in the long run than doing something for the reward (external motivation) as expecting to be rewarded loses it’s novelty very quickly.


The simple fact is that rewards create short term thinking. With short term thinking your players will think: “If I do [A], I will get [B]”. A & B are different for every sport but the problem is the same. This type of thinking is often referred to as “If-Then” thinking and can be very dangerous, especially in sport. If-Then thinking seriously impacts creativity and often turns a task into work. Another study split children into two groups:

  1. Children were asked to use a study book without any expected rewards.
  2. Children were payed per page completed of a school study book.

What seems logical is that group 2 would complete more pages as they are being paid for their work. This is correct in the content (number of pages completed) but the quality (correct answers given) was often worse. What is more interesting though is what happened two weeks later, all children were put into a classroom where work books were laid out on the table and no instructions were given. They could essentially do what they wanted to do within the hour. The interesting thing is that group 1 decided to work on the study books while group 2 decided to do other things as ‘it was not worth their time’ as there was no reward expected.

It is very important to mention that rewards are not always wrong, sometimes they are very useful. The easiest way to discover when rewards are useful is to look at when they are not: giving rewards has the following problems (as explained in the book Drive by Daniel H. Pink):

  1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
  2. They can diminish performance.
  3. They can crush creativity
  4. They can crowd out good behaviour.
  5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behaviour.
  6. They can become addictive.
  7. They can foster short-term thinking.

In short rewards limit long term thinking and creativity, which raises the question: Are rewards useful for short term and non creative situations? Yes! Further in the book from Pink he explains that for routine menial tasks rewards are useful and can often boost productivity. Instead of giving a long explanation I have extracted a flow diagram from his book regarding rewards:



Now what we have a strong foundation for understanding rewards when they are (and not) useful. We need to now work out how we can apply this to our sports and our teams.

Pink: “In brief, for creative, right-brain, heuristic tasks, you’re on shaky ground offering ‘if-then’ rewards. You’re better off using ‘now-that’ rewards. And you’re best off if your ‘now-that’ rewards provide praise, feedback, and useful information.

For your teams you should not create a situation where player will expect a reward (If-Then) but instead give them a reward when they have completed a task where the reward is not expected. If this happens too often though the players will expect the reward even if it is not mentioned and will soon become a If-Then environment. To stop this from happening it is important that praise, feedback and useful information is used instead of rewards such as money or presents.

Now applying it to your own sports: If a skill is very routine but needs to be practiced thousands of times in order to be mastered, take a look at the above diagram and apply it to the task:

  1. Offer a rational for why the task is necessary.
  2. Acknowledge that the task is boring.
  3. Allow people to complete the task in their own way.

As an example I would use with my own Under 16 girls team when learning lift passing while running (which is something we have been working on for the past month):

  1. Tell the girls that learning to push pass better in turn makes the players better when playing their matches against other teams on a weekend = winning more often.
  2. Explain to them that I understand that practicing hundreds of times is boring but focus on the outcome instead of the process.
  3. Allow the players to create the process or exercise in their own way, for example, create a competition between 3 groups, who does it the best/fastest will win.

Honestly I am very good at applying 1st & 2nd points but often I forget about the 3rd point and this is probably the most important of the 3. With defending for example, if you explain the task is necessary but also boring, give the players the chance to create the structure of the exercise them selves and they will be more committed to working hard, thus getting more of an output from the training. In all sports it will be possible to apply this theory to training but the most important thing to take away from this blog post would be trying to limit the amount of rewards given, and if a reward must be given, give it as praise, feedback or information.




One thought on “Demotivating Carrots – Why does being rewarded makes us less motivated to work hard?

  1. As soon as you expect a reward for completing a task the task becomes work instead of play.

    So true. I like to think I’m a creative writer, but if I were to be paid for my ‘work’ it would become exactly that (work), so I wouldn’t enjoy it. Catch-22!


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