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Separating Rewards Into Categories Increases Motivation

Separating Rewards Into Categories Increases Motivation Offering rewards in defined categories, even when the categories are meaningless, can increase motivation, according to a new study.

Even if the rewards are similar and the categories arbitrary, the very act of segmenting them motivates people to perform better and longer, even on menial tasks, according to Scott S. Wiltermuth, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of California’s Marshall School of Business.

The study found that people were more motivated by getting one reward from one category and an additional reward from a separate category than by choosing two rewards from a pool that included all rewards. 

People worked longer when potential rewards were separated into categories regardless of the reward’s value, the researchers found.

The researchers speculate that categorizing the rewards had positive effects on motivation by increasing the degree to which participants felt they would “miss out” if they did not obtain a second reward.

In a series of six experiments, participants were asked to do mundane tasks for either 10- or 20-minute increments for a set number of rewards. The rewards were items from a dollar store.

In the first experiment, participants were told that if they transcribed copy for 10 minutes they could take home one item and if they worked for 20 minutes they could take two items. The first group was told they could take two items from either bin, while another group was told they could take one item from one bin and, if they worked longer, a second item from the second bin.

The researchers found that while only 10 percent of those who could take items from either bin transcribed for 20 minutes, 34 percent of the group whose prizes were from segmented categories did so.

Mentally separating these perks into bins or categories increased participants’ time commitment to the task by playing into their desires to minimize the risk of “missing out,” according to the researchers.

In an experiment to test the “missing out” theory, the researchers again offered rewards from two bins, but there were four bins full of rewards.

When four bins were present, telling participants that they could select one item from one category and another from a second category did not improve motivation, according to the researchers. That’s because participants were not as excited by obtaining the second reward because there were still two more categories or bins that remained inaccessible.

“It was really the desire to eliminate the fear of missing out that led people to work hard when there were two different categories,” said Wiltermuth.

“If they couldn’t eliminate the fear of missing out, which would be the case when they had more categories of items, they didn’t work very hard. They were at levels comparable to the single category.”

The big takeaway from the study, according to Wiltermuth: “Instead of presenting one big reward, set up a few small rewards. Even if they’re not all that different, making people think they are different can get people to devote increased effort in pursuit of those goals.”

The study, co-authored with Francesca Gino, Ph.D., associate professor of business administration at Harvard University, was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Source: USC Marshall School of Business


Checklist being marked off photo by shutterstock.

Separating Rewards Into Categories Increases Motivation

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Separating Rewards Into Categories Increases Motivation. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 2 Jun 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.