Diminishing Effect of Rewards

One of the things you discover when you have kids is just how much you must bribe them to achieve anything. This is especially galling when, like me, you understand the behavioural impacts of using rewards to modify behaviour etc.

One of the things this has shown me is the existence of an effect I’m calling here “the diminishing effects of rewards”.

Basically repeated use of rewards leads to the rewards becoming less and less effective until they become expected payments rather than rewards. This is not quite the same as Over Justification effect as the reward does not become more important than the activity, it just becomes an expected part of the activity and without it, the activity is no longer considered acceptable.

If you promise your child one pound for tidying their room, they will expect that pound the next few times you ask them to tidy their room. However, over time that reward is no longer enough, it has become an expected part of the activity. The reward has diminished in its impact.

Unlike the concept in economics called “the law of diminishing returns”, where one variable is increased whilst others remain the same, here all variables stay constant. That is except for the expectation of the person receiving the reward.

The reason this came to mind was the recent news that Romania had legalised certain forms of “corruption” in the government. Now, the issue here is that greed does not change because it has been legalised. As the money or power that was gained from corruption becomes part of the expected income, the corrupt will need to find new ways to add to that income, ways that are not on the legalised list.

In gamification, this effect is a killer as normally systems reward the same action the same way each time it is taken. 10 points for a like or 50 points for a comment. The first few times this may seem interesting, but very quickly the impact diminishes until it is worthless to the user. If you have built the system well, by that point the user should have found an intrinsic reason to continue to act, if not you are in trouble!

This is also an issue when you “over reward” people, coming back to previous comments about the best rewards taking effort to earn and thus being meaningful to the user.

If you see people are doing less of what you have expected, check to see how often you are rewarding them for menial tasks and if there is a drop off over time. Then ask why. Then ask if you really need to be rewarding the menial tasks at all?

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