Rewards Won’t Get You Anywhere

I was watching a TED Talks video the other day by Dan Pink, and it was very interesting. After thinking about it I wanted to share on the topic because it fits very well with my personal life views and the messages that I try to get across on here with other people.

The title of the video is “The Puzzle of Motivation” and it highlights the reality of what really motivates us as humans.

Which guess what? It’s not MONEY or REWARDS.

You can watch the video here:


I began watching the video, h starts introducing “The candle problem”. This experiment used to prove that offering incentives and rewards to people/employees does not always generate better outcomes/results.

Which I mean, sure I knew that rewards don’t really work but I didn’t know it was a proven fact. Our society still functions on this reward type system in a lot of ways. Do this to get that, get this better to win that, go faster to get more… But we’re not getting any better, a lot of us are speeding through life not even realizing our full potential at all.

Wikipedia describes this candle experiment as: “The candle problem or candle task, also known as Duncker’s candle problem, is a cognitive performance test, measuring the influence of functional fixedness on a participant’s problem solving capabilities.”

The purpose is to see if there is a difference in cognitive performance when given a task that has a reward vs one that does not.

Initially the first group is given 15 minutes with the following items:

  • A candlecandle
  • A box of tacks
  • A pack of matches







The instructions are to “attach the candle to the wall in a way that when the candle is lit it won’t drip wax onto the table below.” The key to the solution is to overcome functional fixedness, which is focusing on the known function of the item instead of expanding our thoughts on all its possibilities.

When this experiment was done there were two select groups being examined.

Group 1 was being timed, they were told that they are trying to establish the norms on the average time to complete the candle problem.

Group 2 was being rewarded, they were told that if they completed the problem within the fastest 25% they would be given 5$, and if they were the fastest they would receive 20$.

The solution:candle problemMost people only saw the box as a place to hold the tacks. It took a longer time for people to see the box as an option to hold the candle. Some people even lit the

candle and were trying to melt the wax to the wall to stick the candle to. Which is a great thought but didn’t work.

Now if you had to guess which group completed the task faster, the one being timed or the one being rewarded. Which would you choose?


We function in a society that believes that rewards and incentives will create better work therefore results. But to our surprise the winner was the group that was being timed. The rewarded group actually took an average three and a half minutes longer than the timed group.

Rewards can work in some circumstances, but in others they actually worsen the outcome. Rewards work for activities that don’t require much cognitive thought or focus, since rewards distract your mind from the big picture and the true reason you’re doing a task. All your focus is on the end result.

There are two different types of motivation:

Extrinsic Motivation: Behaviors driven by outside rewards; money, fame, praise.

Example: “Studying to get good grades.” “Participating in a sport to win awards.”

Intrinsic Motivation: Behaviors driven by internal sources; pleasure, pride, experience, wisdom.

Example: “Participating in a sport because you enjoy the activity.” “Researching a topic to gain wisdom and because it interests you.”


The problem today is that there is a mismatch between what we know about human motivators and what we’re practicing to motivate our kids, employees and/or students. We’re offering rewards and incentives when we should be encouraging self autonomy and more personal satisfaction.

The candle problem was also repeated with another group of people but this time the tacks were provided outside of the box. The same rules applied. One group was timed, one was rewarded.

This round the rewarded group kicked the timed groups butt. The actual problem isn’t that hard when you look at the box as another item instead of as a box of tacks. The solution was now easy and did not require extensive thought. Rewards work on easy tasks that require narrow concentration and focus like, data entry, counting or sorting. But for tasks that require you to think beyond the situation rewards actually inhibit our mind from being able to think more broadly and this restricts our full potential.

This experiment has been replicated and tested in many different ways, in many different places and always brings back the same results, higher incentives on cognitive thinking tasks lead to worse results.

There are now companies in Western Europe that are implementing this knowledge into their management styles. Routine based work like accounting and computer programming are becoming easier to automate or outsource. While right-brained creative, conceptual ideas that require more cognitive thinking are requiring different working motivators. It’s becoming harder to train people to do certain tasks unless this is something they enjoy and see value for themselves. Which is why it’s becoming more and more important to see the educational system as a source for igniting a passion into a students mind, and not limiting the length to which they let that grow. We need to stop putting up rules and boundaries and allow people to think beyond what we already know.

Here are three elements necessary to build a different system:

Autonomy: Urge to direct our own lives

Mastery: The desire to be better and better at something that matters to you.

Purpose: The ability to do what we do in the services of something larger than ourselves.

Traditional management styles create compliance, and hierarchy. Humans are not programmed to want to comply. We want to be free to think, create and explore new ideas, but we’re not given the environment to do so. New management styles create more staff engagement and are self-directed which allows employees to express their best ideas and perform to their highest levels. Depending on the skill and desire of the person you’re managing the right leadership style may vary from coaching, motivating, or directing rather than delegating. There is no one-size-fits-all method to empowering management styles.


Companies like, google, best buy and the GAP have began using the ROWE work system.

Results Only Work Environment where employees are paid by results not by hourly rate. GoROWE indicates the following improvements.

  • Attract and retain today’s top talent.
  • Get everyone focused on collaboration that’s driven by results.
  • Allow your talent to operate successfully with ultimate flexibility in the workplace.
  • Drive accountability at all levels of the organization.
  • Evolve managers into coaches who hold people accountable to measurable results.
  • Catalyze innovation in process by removing senseless workplace barriers.
  • Operate in the leanest manner possible by reducing wasteful practices in time and materials.
  • Drive competence in all roles.
  • Create teaming and collaboration without boundaries – based on common, focused and measurable outcomes.

There’s a lot of information on ROWE here:

My thoughts on this topic go directly to how we raise our children and how we work on our strengths to become successful in this lifestyle. I do think that more and more places will begin implementing systems similar to ROWE. Where people are paid based on their ability.

People need to find their passion, what they like to do to serve others. The younger they discover this the better. There will be a time when all the mindless jobs are replaced or become computerized. The real skills a human has over a computer is the ability to think creatively, outside the box. We can see things and imagine things far beyond any programmed machine, but we are taught to behave like a programmed machine. People are being trained to be robots and robots are trained to perform like people. We need to find our own power because what we have to offer is a lot more than what a computer does.

Often in today’s society we are taught to minimize our creative thoughts or slightly abnormal beliefs to maximize our ability to remember the facts and recite the proper procedures. There is too much focus on lecturing, remembering and studying ideas that are already known and easy to access. Then criticizing ideas that are more unusual or unconventional without even acknowledging them.

For people to feel in control of their own lives we need to enjoy what we do. People should want to get better and better, constantly working on the things that matter to them for their own betterment, not for a reward. Don’t think of yourself as working for the company you’re at now, we are working at gaining experience for our future lives. The possibilities of that are endless, take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves along the way. Don’t think of yourself as tied to where you work now as your only future. The only way to grow is to see yourself as forever growing.

Laziness may appear attractive, but work gives ussatisfaction.-Anne Frank- (1)

As much as you think that you would be happy spending your life sitting on the couch relaxing, drinking and eating, it’s far from the truth. It is in our work that we feel satisfaction, and this tops any form of payment or reward we can receive for our efforts and hard work. Take some time to think about the work and the projects that really get you going and make you motivated, then do more of those. The best place to start is working on yourself, for the personal satisfaction of making yourself better.




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