The Extrinsic Reward: As Seen in the Wild.

“Why should I do it? What’s in it for me?”

How many times have you heard, said or thought the above sentiment, in one form or another? I go to a lot of meetings so I get to hear this one a lot. Reanalysing my interactions with people over the past 12 months or so, it has become apparent how many people are clearly focused on the payoff, and this is usually not related to their intrinsic reward mechanisms.

We get it from students when they ask “Will this be on the test?” (Should I study this? What’s in it for me?) We get it from our colleagues when they look at a new suggestion and say “Well, no-one’s going to do that.” (Which usually means “I wouldn’t do it. What’s in it for me?”) We get it from ourselves when we don’t do something because something else becomes more important – and this is very interesting as it often gives an indicator of where you sit on the work/life balance scale. Where I work, there are a large number of occasions where the rewards mechanisms used can result in actions and thinking patterns that, as an observer, I find both interesting and disturbing.

Let me give you some background on how research funding works in Australia (very brief). You have a research idea or are inside a group that has some good research ideas. You do research. You discover something. You write it up and get it published in conferences and journals. Repeat this step until you have enough publications to have a credible track record. You can now apply for funding from various bodies, so you spend 3-4 weeks writing a grant and you write up your great grant idea, write it up really well, attach your track record evidence as part of your CV, and then wait. In my discipline, ICT, our success rate is very low, and very few of the people who apply for Australian Research Council Discovery Grants get their grants. Now this is, of course, not a lottery – this is a game of skill! Your grant is rated by other people, you get some feedback, you can respond to this feedback (the rejoinder), and the ratings that you originally received, plus your rejoinder, go forward to a larger panel. Regrettably, there is not much money to go around (most grants are only funded at the 50% level of the 22% of grants that get through across the board), so an initial poor rating means that your grant is (effectively) dead.

This makes grants scarce and intrinsically competitive, as well as artificially inflated in their perceived value. Receiving a grant will also get you public congratulations, the money and gear (obviously) and an invitation to the best Christmas cocktail party in the University – the Winner’s Circle, in effect. The same is true if you bring in a heap of research cash of any other kind – public praise, money and networking opportunities.

Which, if you think about it, is rather curious because you have just been given a wodge (technical term) of cash that you can use to hire staff and buy gear, travel to conferences, and basically improve your chances of getting another grant – but you then get additional extrinsic rewards, including the chance to meet the other people who have risen to this level. This is, effectively, a double reward and I suppose I wouldn’t have much of a problem with it, except that we start to run into those issues of extrinsic motivation again which risks robbing people of their inclination to do research once those extrinsic rewards dry up. I note that we do have a scheme to improve the grant chances of people who just missed out on getting Australian Research Council (ARC) funding but it is literally for those people who just missed out.

Not getting a grant can be a very negative result, because the absence of success is also often accompanied by feedback that will force you to question the value of your performance to date, rather than just the work that has been submitted.

When an early career researcher looks at the ARC application process and thinks “What’s in it for me?” – the answer is far more likely to be “an opportunity to receive feedback of variable quality for the investment of several weeks of your life, from people with whom you are actively competing” rather than an actual grant. So this is obviously a point where mentoring, support and (yes) seed funding to be able to improve become very important – as it provides an ability to develop skill, confidence and (hopefully) the quality of the work, leading to success in the future. The core here, however, is not to bribe the person into improving, it’s to develop the person in order that they improve. Regrettably, a scheme that is (effectively) rewarding the rewarded does not have a built-in “and lifting up those who aren’t there” component. In fact, taking on a less experienced researcher is far more likely to hinder a more capable applicant’s chances. When a senior researcher looks at assisting a more junior researcher, under the current system, “What’s in it for me?” is mostly “Reduced chance of success.” Given that this may also cut you out of the Winner’s Circle, as funds dry up, as you are no longer successful, as it then gets harder to do the research and hence get grants, combined with the fact that you can only apply for these once a year… it’s a positive disincentive to foster emerging talent, unless that talent is so talented that it probably doesn’t need that much help!

So the extrinsic manipulation here has a built-in feedback loop and is, regrettably, prone to splitting people into two groups (successful and not) very early on, at the risk of those groups staying separated for some time to come.

If the large body of work in the area is to be believed, most people don’t plan with the long term outcomes in mind (hence, being told that if you work hard you might get a grant in five years is unlikely to change anyone’s behaviour) and on top of that, as Kohn posits, praising a successful person is more likely to cause envy and division than any real improvement. How does someone else being praised tell you how to improve from your current position?

So what does all of this hot air mean for my students?

I have just finished removing all ‘attendance-based’ incentive schemes from my courses – there are no marks being given just for showing up in any form, marks are only achieved when you demonstrate that you have acquired knowledge. Achievement will not generate any additional reward – the achievement will be the reward. Feedback is crucial but, and this will be challenging, everything I say or do must provide the students with a way to improve, without resorting to the more vague areas of general praise. I will be interested to see if this appears to have any (anecdotal) effect upon the number of times someone asks “What’s in it for me?”

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