Tag Archives: akrasia

Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Rewards

“If I go long enough without getting a compliment, I compliment myself, and that’s just as good because at least then I know it’s sincere.”

– Ruth Gordon

I’ve been writing quite a bit recently about cultivating good habits. (Previously I wrote about balancing your experiencing and remembering selves and crafting personal policies.) In this post I’ll talk a little bit about the benefits and dangers of rewards and self-reinforcement.

Ice Cream Sandwich by ralphandjenny on flickr

Rewards are powerful motivators and we should use every tool available to us in the quest to become better versions of ourselves. So how about rewarding yourself for going to the gym? After a good workout it’s tempting to indulge yourself with a rich meal or an ice cream sandwich. Won’t the positive reinforcement make you want to go to the gym more often?

Setting aside the obvious caloric difficulties, this kind of policy can lead to problems. You might end up going to the gym more often, at least in the short term, but only at the expense of your experiencing self. The pure joy of exercise will fade and you’ll find you’re only doing it for the eventual reward. Besides, if you’re only going to the gym to justify eating ice cream, intuitively it feels like you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

Indeed, ongoing research since the 1970’s has shown that rewards can undermine existing motivations, even after the reward stimulus is removed.

Intrinsic Motivation and the Overjustification Effect

Alfie Kohn argues in Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes that external incentives have the power to sap intrinsic motivation for an activity. Take a child who loves playing piano and give her a reward for practicing, and you may end up with a child whose enthusiasm for music is permanently dampened.

This is known as the overjustification effect and, though counterintuitive, explains why the things we expect to be motivating, like salaries and bonuses, are often ineffective or even harmful to work performance.

Experimental psychologists Mark Lepper and Richard Nisbett demonstrated this in the early 1970’s with the following experiment: they divided a population of young children into three groups. They told Group A that they would get a ribbon as a reward for drawing. They rewarded Group B in the same way, but didn’t tell them about the ribbons ahead of time. Group C was simply allowed to draw for the same period of time and was not rewarded. Later on, during free play time, children from Group A spent significantly less time drawing than children from the other groups.

For the Group A kids, drawing changed from an enjoyable activity into an opportunity to receive praise. They interpreted (or justified) their own drawing behavior as happening because of the reward.

This effect has been replicated across a wide range of age groups and activities.

Notably, overjustification happens most strongly with larger rewards, and almost not at all (or even in reverse) with smaller ones: the former provides a plausible story for justification, while the latter leaves experimental subjects reinterpreting even boring activities as fun or interesting.

Effective Self-Reinforcement

Despite the dangers, I do recommend experimenting with self-reinforcement. A great reference for DIY reinforcement training is Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training. (Even if you don’t have time to read the whole book, take a few minutes to look through this excellent set of notes.) Pryor suggests that most of us are severely under-reinforced for the habits we’d like to have:

“[Self-reinforcement] is something we often neglect to do, partly because it doesn’t occur to us, and partly because we tend to demand a lot more of ourselves than we would of others.… As a result we often go for days at a time without letup, going from task to task to task unnoticed and unthanked even by ourselves. Quite aside from reinforcing oneself for some habit change or new skill, a certain amount of reinforcement is desirable just for surviving daily life.”

Here are some guidelines for effective reinforcement gleaned from Don’t Shoot the Dog! and my own experimentation:

  • DO use small rewards (eat an M&M, smile to yourself, do a power pose, give yourself a compliment, or step out into the sunshine).
  • DO use reinforcement for tasks that aren’t fun in themselves.
  • Once you establish a consistent routine, try flipping a coin and only reward on heads (this is a very common technique in game design and might be familiar if you’ve ever been to a casino).
  • Keep records and make graphs so that improvement can be seen at a glance and lapses are put into context.
  • Reinforcements are most effective when they immediately follow the behavior you are trying to shape.
  • The entire context is reinforced, not just the habit you are shaping: rewards can change the way you feel about the people you spend time with and the places you frequent, so be careful.
  • DON’T punish yourself. Not only is it unpleasant, it’s surprisingly ineffective.

Before you set up an incentive scheme to “get yourself” to do something, think about the behavior you’re really reinforcing and think about whether you are willing to sacrifice the joy of the experience itself.

Also, be aware of the inherent limitations of self-reinforcement. The most effective reinforcements are those that convey information, and self-administered rewards don’t carry any new information about your performance.

Dynamo Donuts by Zack Sheppard on flickr
You made it this far; have a donut. You deserve it.

Why all this talk about rewards and habits on a game blog? A big part of my motivation for producing Double Dynamo in the first place was curiosity: what makes people tick? how can I work most effectively? It’s certainly been rewarding working on my own habits as the project has gone from conception to implementation, and very soon, to launch.

Next up: the power of identity.

Curious about Double Dynamo? Watch the trailer.

Policies You Can Stick To

“Honesty is the best policy.”

– Benjamin Franklin (maybe)

Last Thursday I wrote about taking advantage of the peak-end rule to make it easier to do more of the things you want to be doing, like going to the gym. That technique works because our memories and our experiences don’t always align — we’re in some sense made up of two different selves, what Daniel Kahneman calls the remembering self and the experiencing self.

There’s another way to think of yourself as being made of different selves, and it leads to the very useful technique of setting policies and sticking to them.

Fragmented Selves

I’ve always been active, but I’ve never been an endurance runner. Every time I tried running for more than five minutes I wound up out of breath and in pain. But a few years ago something changed, and I realized that if I pace myself properly I can run moderate distances without too much trouble. And though it’s still a little painful, I discovered that running doesn’t tire me out like I expected, it’s a great way to warm up for other kinds of exercise, and it reliably generates that post-workout high.

Still, once I added running on the treadmill (or as a friend likes to call it, the hamster wheel) to my workout routine, I ended up going to the gym less often. At home I would remember the pain of running and sometimes decide not to go to the gym at all. Realizing this, I stopped bringing my running shoes and the problem went away. (This is not as strange as it sounds: my gym is a rock climbing gym and I spend most of my time there in climbing shoes.)

Running on a treadmill

Except now there was a new problem: once I got to the gym I wanted to run and I couldn’t because my shoes were at home.

What’s going on here?

The version of me at home felt deterred by the pain of running, and the version of me at the gym just wanted to get on the treadmill. Me-at-home had just woken up — of course I didn’t feel like running at that point. Me-at-the-gym had just biked to the gym and was already half warmed up — of course I felt like running. The problem was, the one making the decision to run was me-at-home.

Let the Best Self Decide

I resolved my dilemma by instituting a personal policy: always bring running shoes to the gym but don’t make the decision to run until I walk in the door. Me-at-home thinks, “Packing these shoes does not oblige me to run. I’ll only run if I really feel like it.”

Now the decision feels like a game, and when I leave the house I find myself wondering which way I’ll decide. Will I run or not? The anticipation makes me want to go to the gym more, not less.

The key, however, is to be honest with your past and future selves. The policy only works because me-at-home and me-at-the-gym have an understanding. If me-at-the-gym doesn’t actually feel like running but I make myself do it anyway — because “I might as well, since I have my shoes with me” — then me-at-home will feel betrayed.

In fact, the first time I put the policy in effect I intentionally didn’t run on the treadmill even though I wanted to. I did this to set a precedent and to signal to myself that I was taking the policy seriously.

The Art of Making Deals With Yourself

A good personal policy is an agreement between selves that you can feel good about on both ends, and crafting one is an art. It’s harder than it sounds and is full of subtle pitfalls. Here are some rules of thumb that may help you build policies of your own:

  • Start small and build trust slowly with success spirals.
  • Empathize with your other self: you will feel differently about things when caffeinated, tired, excited, calm, or angry, and these states are mostly physiological.
  • Be fair. A policy that is onerous or one-sided inevitably results in a breach of contract, and it’s hard to rebuild trust in yourself after a breach.
  • PracticeWillpower is a limited resource, but like a muscle it gets stronger with exercise.
  • Understand how you discount the pleasure and pain of future events in inconsistent ways.
  • Be flexible and adjust your policies over time as your circumstances change. Don’t be alarmed when the technique that seems like a magic bullet “wears off” after a few months.

This idea of trading or negotiating with future selves is closely related to the idea of identity, which I’ll be writing about in a future post. I’ll also come back to this idea in the context of productivity and time management. Coming up next: the right way to motivate yourself with rewards.

Have you ever struck a deal with your future self? How has it worked out? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

Curious about Double Dynamo? Watch the trailer and find out more.

Balancing Your Two Selves

“We actually don’t choose between experiences. We choose between memories of experiences. And even when we think about the future we don’t think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories.”

– Daniel Kahneman

I often have trouble getting myself to do the things that I’d like to be doing, like going to the gym or meditating regularly. Recently I ran across a big idea that helped me understand why this is true, and also provided a few hints that allowed me to improve the situation.

The eminent professor of psychology and economics Daniel Kahneman gave a TED talk a few years ago about two fundamentally different ways we experience our lives: our first-hand experiences as we live through them, and our memories and stories that we come up with after the fact. He calls these two perspectives the experiencing self and the remembering self.


These two selves are often in direct conflict, and Kahneman points out that the remembering self usually runs the show when it comes to making decisions:

“You can think of the remembering self sort of dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need.”

On the other hand, sometimes the situation is reversed and the experiencing self makes the decisions — we’ve all done something that seemed appealing at the time and regretted it later. To rephrase the above, “you can think of the experiencing self sort of saddling the remembering self with memories that the remembering self doesn’t need.” We seem to be particularly bad at balancing the needs of these two systems.

So how can we live in a way that satisfies both selves?

In my own life the two selves often butt heads. Let’s take a closer look at the example of deciding to go to the gym.


The experiencing self has both ups and downs while I’m actually there, but the remembering self wants to package the entire activity into a single, compact impression. That impression can be one of pain, frustration, or wasted effort, and it’s hard to talk myself into repeating the experience. I do still go to the gym, though, and I even look forward to it. How do I manage it?

Use the Peak-End Rule

One strategy you can use is to encourage your remembering self to have good impressions of the experiences you want to repeat on a regular basis. The remembering self thinks in stories, according to Kahneman, stories that are defined by “changes, significant moments, and endings.” This is the peak-end rule of psychology.

I take advantage of this rule by making sure that the final moments of the gym-going experience are overwhelmingly positive: I breathe deeply, take a hot shower, smile at the workers at the front desk on the way out, and bike fast on the way home.

As a result, the next time I think about going to the gym I remember the good feelings from the previous session and expect to repeat them.

Other Strategies

I’ve accumulated a number of strategies and a few cautionary tales that have helped me be more effective and productive and do more of the things I want to be doing:

I’ll go into each of these in more detail in future posts.

In the meantime I’d love to hear other approaches. Do you have tricks that help you reconcile your remembering self and your experiencing self? Share them in the comments!

Curious about Double Dynamo? Watch the trailer and find out more.