Why extrinsic rewards are so bad for motivation

Why extrinsic rewards are so bad for motivation

extrinsic rewards bad motivation

Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely: They motivate people to get rewards!

So states Daniel Pink in his engaging book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. According to his research, extrinsic rewards, particularly “if-then” or “contingent” rewards (“if you do this, then you’ll get that”) snuff out all self motivation and creativity, regardless of task or age.

Have you ever promised one of your students a prize or award for playing a passage correctly, performing at a concert or entering a competition? Have any of your students’ parents discussed how brilliantly they managed to bribe little Billy to do his practice? Perhaps you’ve done it with your own children. If so, think again.

Drive is full of detailed research into the psychology of motivation as it relates to individuals as well as organisations. The following are a few key points about motivation that I found particularly relevant to my piano teaching.

One research study looked at a group of preschoolers who chose to spend their “free play” time drawing. After spending some time observing the children over a couple of weeks,

…the researchers divided the children into three groups. The first was the “expected-award” group. They showed each child a “Good Player” certificate – adorned with a blue ribbon and featuring the child’s name – and asked if the child wanted to draw in order to receive the award. The second group was the “unexpected-award” group. Researchers asked these children simply if they wanted to draw. If they decided to, when the session ended, the researchers handed each child one of the “Good Player” certificates. The third group was the “no-award” group. Researchers asked these children if they wanted to draw, but neither promised nor gave them a certificate at the end.

The results were eye-opening:

Children in the “unexpected-award” and “no-award” groups drew just as much, and with the same relish, as they had before the experiment. But children in the first group – the ones who’d expected and then received an award – showed much less interest and spent much less time drawing. The alluring prizes had turned play into work.

According to Pink, “if-then” rewards tend to:

  • Extinguish intrinsic motivation,
  • Diminish performance,
  • Crush creativity,
  • Crowd out good behavior,
  • Encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior,
  • Become addictive, and
  • Foster short-term thinking.


Not a pretty picture.

In another study, this time regarding the motivation of blood donors, two Swedish economists found that offering a small payment in exchange for giving blood (about $8), actually decreased the number of people willing to donate by half. Why? The researchers suggested, “[the payment] tainted an altruistic act and ‘crowded out’ the intrinsic desire to do something good”.

Interestingly in the same study, researchers also tried another tactic: giving people paid time off work in order to donate blood. This kind of reward did help as it removed a barrier to being altruistic but didn’t reduce the motivation.

…artists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for the pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognised as superior

And it’s the same with weight loss and bad habits. People who choose to slim down for a wedding or quit smoking for their partner often reach their goals, but then put the weight back on or take up the habit again when the original reason passes. The external motivation only lasts so long.

So what should we learn from all this?

  1. Well, it’s important to note that not all rewards are bad. As shown above, when children don’t expect a reward, and one is given, this doesn’t have the same negative effect. So keep in mind that any extrinsic reward should be unexpected and offered only after the task is complete. One way is to think of “now that” rewards: ie. a parent might say, “Now that you’ve completed your Grade 1 exam, let’s go out to dinner as a family”, or a teacher might say, “You did so well with your practice last week that you can have a week off your scales!”.
  2. Consider what externally imposed barriers your students may have to practice and encourage parents to remove them. Perhaps this is permitting them time after dinner to practice rather than clearing the table, setting a clear schedule so that family interruptions can’t interfere with practice, quitting soccer/karate/ballet/tennis lessons to free-up more time (well it’s a nice dream!), etc.
  3. If you are a parent, also consider the issue of paying children to do chores (or anything they don’t want to do, for that matter):

By linking money to the completion of chores, parents turn an allowance into an “if-then” reward. This sends kids a clear (and clearly wrongheaded) message: In the absence of a payment, no self-respecting child would willingly set the table, empty the garbage, or make her own bed. It converts a moral and familial obligation into just another commercial transaction – and teaches that the only reason to do a less-than-desirable task for your family is in exchange for payment.

I still award stickers to many of my younger students if I’m proud of the work they have done on a piece (and this is fine as long as it’s not expected or assumed). Just avoid telling a student that they can have a really big special shiny sticker if they play the piece again and add all the dynamics you’ve discussed. Don’t worry, I’m guilty of it just as much as everyone else! Oh, and I think it’s best not to give students money for doing something challenging, not that I hear anyone does that anymore.

For more info, here’s a great summary of the whole book in 6 pages, albeit written from a business management perspective.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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extrinsic rewards bad motivation
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  1. Hi Tim,
    I love this post and lots of other stuff you do! I’m going to reference this in an essay I’m writing for my third year pedagogy class but I can’t see what year it was written in!! I see Feb 9 but not the year. If you could let me know that would be awesome – thank you.

  2. Hi, Tim! I’m posting this comment way after you posted this article. But here’s a question for ya: For someone who DOES awards prizes regularly, but now having read this, wants to stop awarding the prizes… how would you suggest they go about putting a stop to the prizes without upsetting the students? I have a lot of students who are extremely motivated by the prizes, and I’ve actually had several students’ siblings sign up for lessons just for the prizes, and then ended up enjoying piano (although I can’t say that for all of them).
    I agree with this article, but also agree with Leila that the extrinsic rewards help nudge students in the right direction. I also see that you’ve agreed with Rebecca’s comment, some time after having posted this article.
    How can I find a healthy balance? Perhaps you have another blogpost more recent than this one which could help answer my questions?


    • Hey Morgan – yes my thinking has changed since I originally wrote this. In part due to my discussion on this podcast (have a listen): https://topmusic.co/tttv032-what-to-say-to-parents-when-their-child-is-about-to-quit-with-anita-collins/

      I think Leila’s right – OK to use awards to get the ball rolling and to develop that initial spark, but I wouldn’t recommend continuing it all the time and indefinitely as it can become the motivation. Sounds like this isn’t necessarily happening in your studio as you’ve said your students are continuing which is great. It’s a bit worrying that they were signing up for the prizes (although maybe that’s good marketing!!).

      If you want to change your approach then it will just need to be a tapering-off for students that don’t really need them. Lots of praise and reminders about “How good did that feel to play so well”, etc. to refocus the positive outcome to their own feelings.

      Good discussion to have in the Inner Circle forums, by the way 🙂

  3. […] that extrinsic motivation has a negative effect on will power as it is driven by ego. Another research showed how extrinsic rewards snuff out all self motivation and creativity, regardless of task or […]

  4. I tend to wonder about external motivation a lot. I know that in psych 101, they teach that internal motivation is the ideal – it’s what we should all strive to do BUT then you read the music pedagogical literature, and it seems to say that external motivation has its place in learning. I just read a PhD dissertation on the perceptions of young piano students on practice, and it says there loud and clear that sometimes when a child’s interest wanes then external motivation is implemented. I don’t think we can completely steer clear of external motivation, I mean I don’t think we should depend on it and abuse it as teachers – I just think it has its place.

    Besides this – with internal motivation, it’s not something we can teach or give to the student. We might show that we really, really love music and that we enjoy the process of practice BUT we can’t make them enjoy practice. For me personally, there was a stage in my life when I really hated practice, it was until I started teaching that I started to love it again and become curious about it.

    If you think about it – external motivation occurs very frequently in the music world. Performing in front of people in itself is external motivation – think about it, you don’t want to make a fool of yourself, so of course you are going to practice! External motivation happens during lessons – there is a part of you that wants to please and impress your teacher! Of course, as you said, our role as teachers is to minimize it, but we can’t get rid of it, it has its place in learning.


    • Hi Rebecca. Great comments and I totally agree. It’s been some time since I wrote the post and I now believe there is a time for extrinsic motivation in music education, albeit in small doses and only when required. As u say, everyone needs a nudge now and then.

      Ps any chance I could have a read of the PHD as well?

      Cheers Tim

      Sent from my iPhone

    • Sorry wrong link with my name!

  5. Great post! What are some of your ideas for instilling intrinsic motivation in our students? Now that I know what not to do, I’d love to know “how-to”! Thank you!!

    • Hi Heather. Thanks for your great question and sorry it’s taken a while to reply!

      I think the most important aspect is to try and get students addicted to practising. I wrote a blog post about this (https://topmusic.co/2011/08/27/how-to-get-addicted-to-practising-piano/) which you may find interesting.

      Also getting the right repertoire for each student is really vital and I’ve also written about this in the past (you can search for “repertoire” on the LHS). If you sense they are losing interest in a piece, move onto something else and always keep finding and playing new repertoire and searching youtube and other blogs for ideas.

      Students also get motivated by playing in bands and groups so that’s another thing you might suggest if suitable. Recording software can also inspire musical students. It also goes without saying that good teaching and enthusiastic feedback can also be great motivators – althought it may be extrinsic to start, it will kindle an internal fire that can last for years.

      Hope that helps!!


  6. Hi Tim, I am totally on board with trying to avoid external barriers and I love your summary. When you award stickers, is it when a student ‘finishes’ a piece or just when they do something that you’re proud of (like executing a particular section well or doing a good job transposing for example)? I teach piano and I’ve been giving stickers when students ‘finish’ a song. I’ve noticed that some students have a seemingly healthy response to the stickers. They enjoy picking out a sticker when the time comes, but it’s really not that big of a deal. Others fixate on the sticker idea and I’m concerned they might be working more towards earning stickers than enjoying playing and learning. Do you (or anyone else reading this post) feel like giving stickers out consistently when a student moves on from one song to another sets up a counterproductive external reward system?

    • HI Jon. Thanks for your comment. I don’t think there’s any problem with awarding stickers for completing pieces as it’s like a “badge of honour” for a student. I personally tend to hand them out when I’m particularly pleased with an effort, performance or just a little 2-bar section that’s been causing trouble, etc. That said, with some students, I do it far more often than others – as you say, it depends on the kid. I never give out stickers if a kid starts asking for them though, or starts saying, “can I get a sticker if I play this well?”. You can always keep the sticker thing going for the completion of pieces and make a freddo or snake an extra special award instead.

      • Cool, sounds good. Thanks! Happy teaching. You have a great website.

  7. […] Why extrinsic rewards are so bad for motivation […]

  8. Reblogged this on 88pianokeys and commented:
    mmm…I totally agree, however, extrinsic motivation does get the ball rolling!

  9. Great post, Tim. Thanks for your summary of the book. I’m going to put a plug in for piano teachers to read this!

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