Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Don't ruin a hobby by turning it into a job

Yet another entry in the "Scientists Proving What We Already Knew" file — once they start getting paid to do something they used to do for fun, people tend to find the activity less satisfying and rewarding:

[University of Rochester psychologist Edward] Deci tracked a bunch of college students who were solving puzzles for fun. He divided them into two groups. One group was allowed to keep solving puzzles as before. People in the other were offered a small financial reward for each puzzle they solved.

The psychologist later evaluated the volunteers: He found that people given a financial incentive were now less interested in solving puzzles on their own time. Although these people had earlier been just as eager as those in the other group, offering an external incentive seemed to kill their internal drive.

The lesson may be that if you really enjoy a hobby, then perhaps you should keep it at that. After all, one of the purposes of a hobby or some other pasttime passion is to help us escape from the pressures of the real world.

A corollary of this theory is that you shouldn't monetize a task that kids should learn to develop their own internal drive for:

"If I pay my kids to do their homework, I am saying, 'You will get this if you do your homework,' but I am also saying, 'Homework is not likely to have intrinsic rewards,'" [Princeton University economist Ronald] Benabou said. To the extent that a child is doing homework because he or she enjoys the challenge, or wants to demonstrate intelligence and diligence, the homework has meaning beyond the task itself, and Benabou predicts that offering a reward will backfire.

This reminds me of the episode of "This American Life" in which a mother sought to end the chronic quibbling between her young daughters by paying the older girl to play nicely with the younger one.

Now that just can't be good.

—Mellow Monk

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