Study: Cash Not Needed to Motivate Competitive People

By Debra Viadero — April 27, 2010 1 min read
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People who are driven by rewards are just as competitive, judging by their brain activity, when there’s no prize in sight, Science Daily reported yesterday.

The story describes a study in which a group of neuroscientists from Washington University in St. Louis randomly selected a group of 31 adults, rated their level of competitiveness and their sensitivity to monetary rewards, and then had them compete in word games. While the subjects played, the researchers measured their brain activity using magnetic-resonance imaging. The participants were told upfront that they could win prizes ranging from 25 to 75 cents for some games. For others, they got advance warnings that no rewards were being offered for correct responses.

Contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis, the brain scans showed that the reward-driven subjects’ brains were just as excited—in fact, even more so—when no prizes were offered. The activity was centered in the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain that is thought to be linked to intelligence, goal-driven behavior, and cognitive strategies.

In other words, their heads were already in the game, triggered into high alert by the sheer joy of competition. If you think about it, we all know someone like that—the person who always has to win, regardless of the reward.

This is one very small study, of course, but I sense implications down the road for ongoing experiments in education to reward students, teachers, and principals for a job well done. First, if the thought of competing is all it takes to spark brainpower, education reformers could save themselves a lot of money and ditch the cash bonuses altogether.

The more serious implication, however, may be just that people are motivated differently. That suggests the existence of a middle ground between those who favor rewards and competition and those who say schools ought to stress more intrinsic rewards such as learning for the sake of learning. And that middle ground may be a territory worth exploring.

Look for the study “Prefrontal Cortex Mediation of Cognitive Enhancement in Rewarding Motivational Contexts” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.