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Play With Motivation: How Autonomy and Rewards Boost Learning - How can we be motivated to learn something new?

26 Oct 2023

Last week, my not-so-little brother celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and he proudly showed the gift he got from his girlfriend that morning — a shiny new guitar. Despite his reputation for enthusiastic singing performances, particularly in the shower, I was still very surprised.

Istockphoto 161057193 612X612

Last week, my not-so-little brother celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and he proudly showed the gift he got from his girlfriend that morning — a shiny new guitar. Despite his reputation for enthusiastic singing performances, particularly in the shower, I was still very surprised. I had never once heard him express any interest in learning to play the guitar. I couldn’t help but wonder: Is he genuinely passionate about being a guitarist and creating his own melodies? Or is he driven by the idea of impressing his girlfriend with his newfound guitar skills, craving the external praise and admiration that may follow?

In general, people can be motivated to learn something new for a variety of reasons. Motivation is important for our everyday behavior, because it drives us to explore, to learn, and to achieve our goals. In the motivation literature, a clear distinction is often made between intrinsic motivation (as exemplified by my brother potentially having a true passion for playing the guitar) and extrinsic motivation (as exemplified by my brother being motivated by external praise).

In real life, however, it is often not that simple: our behavior is extremely complex and we are rarely driven by a single source of motivation. That's why we conducted an experiment to understand how intrinsic and extrinsic motivations work together during learning. Specifically, we explored how autonomy, an important component known to foster intrinsic motivation, and monetary reward, a classic example of an extrinsic motivator, impact learning and memory.

Unraveling the Impact of Autonomy and Rewards on Learning

To this end, we let our participants take part in a learning experiment. In the experiment, object images were displayed on a computer screen, but not all of them were immediately visible. To reveal the hidden objects, a movable "searchlight" was introduced that could be controlled with a joystick. Later, participants were presented with many object images again, and had to indicate whether they had seen an object during the learning part of the experiment, or not.

In the experiment, we independently manipulated autonomy and extrinsic rewards. Autonomy is the feeling of control and volitional decision-making over one's actions. It's a fundamental aspect of intrinsic motivation, often associated with a genuine desire to engage in an activity. We manipulated autonomy by letting our participants move around the searchlight themselves (granting them autonomy) or by letting them follow the searchlight of the previous participants (restricting autonomy). The results were very clear: Participants recognized more items studied under autonomous conditions compared to those studied under conditions of restricted autonomy.

Extrinsic rewards can also be powerful motivators, since they drive individuals to perform a certain task for the sake of obtaining a reward. In our study, participants could earn monetary incentives by accurately recognizing specific rewarded object images at a later stage. We indeed found that these rewards had a positive impact on recognition memory, but there was a twist… When participants could explore autonomously, rewards had no additional effect on their memory performance. However, when autonomy was removed, and participants were not in control of their exploration, rewards significantly improved their recognition memory. In other words, monetary rewards only contributed to learning when participants had no autonomy.

Implications for Education and Beyond

One of the most important implications of this study lies in the field of education. In educational settings, both autonomy and extrinsic rewards are commonly used to motivate students. Teachers often assign grades as a form of extrinsic reward to encourage learning. Simultaneously, educators aim to foster autonomy by providing students with choices and opportunities for self-directed learning. But is it always effective to grade our students and use rewards? Our study suggests that this is not that straightforward. The impact of this study goes beyond just school settings. It's relevant in workplaces and even when promoting healthy behavior. Knowing how to use autonomy and rewards effectively can make a big difference in changing people’s mindsets and behavior. In the end, understanding the power of these motivators can lead to a more motivated, productive, and fulfilled society.

As for my brother, I hope he'll have the freedom to choose which musical pieces he wants to master during his guitar lessons. This autonomy is likely to improve his guitar learning experience. Yet, there will also be times when he must work through less exciting pieces to refine his skills. In those moments, I'm sure that his girlfriend will be there with her encouraging words of praise, providing that external motivation he might need. I sincerely hope that she just gave him the very best birthday gift he has received in the past thirty years.

Key Points

  • Human motivation is complex, and people can be driven by intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
  • Recent research demonstrates that autonomy significantly improves learning performance.
  • Monetary rewards also improve learning performance, but only when autonomy is restricted.


References: van Lieshout, L.L.F., Colizoli, O., Holman, T.L.L., Kühnert, F. & Bekkering, H. (2023). Rewards can be costly: Extrinsic rewards are not beneficial during autonomous learning. PsyArXiv.