Psychologist Kou Murayama, at University of California, Los Angeles, originally studied motivation in relation to learning and education. During a conversation with neuroscientist Kenji Matsumoto, of Tamagawa University in Tokyo, he realised their fields viewed motivation very differently. “I was struck by the fact that in neuroscience motivation is assumed to be a single, unitary concept and just a function of external reward,” says Murayama.
He and Matsumoto set up a study in which they asked volunteers to play a simple game involving pressing a button every time a stopwatch on a computer screen reached five seconds. The goal was to do so within one-twentieth of a second. Participants in one group received a small financial reward each time they achieved this while those in another did not. The tests were carried out in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Those offered financial rewards experienced higher levels of activation of parts of the brain associated with motivation. “Extrinsic incentives are actually useful to temporarily enhance motivation,” says Murayama.
The participants then had a short break outside the scanner in which they could choose to either read some unrelated leaflets or continue playing the game. They were unaware that the choice they made was being monitored. Then they played the stopwatch game again, and this time both groups received a fixed sum of money for taking part, with no performance-related payments. Intriguingly, in those who received cash prizes the first time around, less activity was observed in the brain areas associated with motivation the second time they played the game. Moreover those that had the greatest decrease in activity were the least likely to have voluntarily practiced the game during their break outside the MRI machine.
Murayama and Matsumoto’s findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010, suggest that money can motivate people to work while simultaneously reducing their intrinsic motivation. “We do not think we should get rid of all the extrinsic rewards from educational and work settings," says Murayama. "Rather, we may need a more balanced view between extrinsic, short-lived monetary rewards and intrinsic motivation. This would lead to another interesting possibility that extrinsic motivation may be transformed to intrinsic motivation under certain circumstances.”
Psychologists, economists and neuroscientists are slowly but surely painting an ever more detailed picture of the complex relationships between our internal drives and external incentives such as money. It is so far an incomplete picture, they acknowledge. “Neuroeconomics has in principle the possibility to tell us a lot, but we are not there yet,” says Ariely. Murayama stresses the need to test ideas outside of the brain scanner in situations that more closely mimic our real life work and bonus cultures. “It is true that it [the detrimental effect of money on motivation] exists in experimental settings, but we need to show that it does indeed have great impact in practice.” Murayama and colleagues are now starting to use brain scanning to investigate how factors other than money, such as our desire to beat our own targets or to do better than others, might also affect brain networks associated with motivation and ultimately performance.
None of these researchers are proposing that Bob Diamond and the rest of us would perform better without financial rewards. Money can and does motivate people to work, yet large performance-related bonuses can reduce our personal interest in tasks and potentially undermine performance. While some progressive employers have started to take note of some of these insights being generated by the behavioural sciences, a larger number could probably benefit from a deeper understanding of employee motivation in order to re-design working patterns and payment schemes in ways that could improve both job satisfaction and productivity.
“I am not suggesting that they [people] should not be well paid for doing their work," says Deci. "I am saying we need to get out of the place of thinking that the way to motivate is to give them incentives for specific tasks. We need to think about how to make the workplace one in which people will get their needs satisfied and in which they will perform well.”