Why Rewards inhibit Intrinsic Motivation


Why do rewards inhibit, rather than enhance, Intrinsic Motivation (IM)? This powerful third drive motivates us to interact with our environment in creative ways, independent of both biological needs and external reinforcement (the two extrinsic drives)1. IM seems to belong to our Information Digestion system (ID system) 2. The Pulse is a fundamental mathematical form associated with the ID system. It provides a effective model for the relationship between Attention and Experience. What does this so called Pulse of Attention reveal about the relationship between rewards and Intrinsic Motivation?

The Pulse, Attention & Experience

According to the explanatory model we developed to make sense of Life's Info Digestion system, Experiences come in Pulses of Sustained Attention. These Pulses have a mathematical correlate. When the Living Algorithm (previously known as the Cell Equation) digests a single number string of sufficient duration one of the results is the Pulse.3 (Shown below.)

Pulse corresponds with Pulse-like nature of Human Experience

There are many patterns of correspondence between the mathematical behavior of this Pulse and human experience. On the most fundamental level, most, if not all, human experience has a pulse-like nature. Like the Pulse, experiences tend to have a distinct duration that includes a beginning, a body and an end.

Interruptions diminish Pulse’s Dimensions and Quality of Experience

There are other similarities between the mathematical Pulse and human experience. Both are negatively impacted by interruptions. If a data string of 1s is ‘interrupted’ by another number or stopped prematurely, the ideal dimensions of the Pulse are diminished. In other words, when there are numerical interruptions to the steady state of the data string, the Pulse does not attain its maximum height and/or area. In similar fashion, interruptions have a negative impact upon the quality of human experience, whether a concert, a lecture, a conversation or creative work sessions.

The following graph provides a visualization of the Directional Momentum (the acceleration) of data streams consisting solely of 1s (Attention) and 0s (Interruptions). The ideal Pulse (all 1s) looms high above in the background, while Interrupted Pulses (containing some 0s) are shown in the foreground.

The Pulse: a model for Living Experience

Due to these significant correspondences, the Pulse’s behavior provides a plausible model for human experience. We even sometimes refer to this fundamental mathematical form as the Pulse of Experience.

Conscious Attention drives Experience

According to our model, Attention and Experience are linked. Attention drives Experience. Without Attention, there is no Experience. When Attention is diminished in any way, the quality of the Experience also suffers.

Single number string corresponds with concentrated focus of Attention on Single Topic

In terms of our mathematical model, a single number string corresponds with the concentrated focus of Attention on a single topic. This unified focus maximizes the quality of the Experience. The focus of Attention can be a lecture, a play, a productive session or any other experience. The dimensions of the Pulse correspond with the perceived quality of the entertainment event or the productive session.

Interruptions to focus of Attention (the number string) detract from quality of experience (the Pulse dimensions)

Just as ‘interruptions’ diminish the ideal dimensions of the mathematical Pulse, significant interruptions to the focus of Attention can detract from the enjoyment, comprehension and/or execution of a musical event, a lecture, or even a conversation. Due to this negative impact, performers (whether musicians, lecturers or athletes), creators (whether composer, writer, artist or engineer), and audiences (whether students, concert-goers or restaurant customers) hope to optimize their experience by minimizing interruptions.

Prematurely Shifting Attention (shifting numerical values) detracts from assimilation (the Pulse dimensions)

Returning to the mathematics, there are other ways, besides interruptions and shortening, of diminishing the ideal dimensions of the Pulse. Prematurely shifting numerical values in the data stream, i.e. before the Pulse peaks and culminates, is another way to detract from the ideal dimensions of the Pulse. In similar fashion, shifting the focus of Attention between homework, surfing the Internet, texting, and/or social media is associated with diminished comprehension and lack of integration. In general, multi-tasking does not generate a quality experience. For instance, excessive talking while dining tends to detract from the taste experience. In general, prematurely shifting Attention detracts from our ability to assimilate information, i.e. have an Experience.

Why Rewards inhibit Intrinsic Motivation

Parallels between Pulse’s mathematical behavior and human behavior

It is evident that there are distinct parallels between the Pulse’s mathematical behavior and the negative effects of Interruptions and Shifting Attention upon our cognitive abilities. The Pulse’s behavior also parallels the negative effects of conditional If-Then rewards upon Intrinsic Motivation.

Undivided Attention required for optimum Experience

When the Living Algorithm digests 2 qualitatively different data streams simultaneously, the height and area of both resultant Pulses are diminished proportionately. In similar fashion, Dividing Attention is yet another way of diminishing the quality of the Experience. Recall that Undivided Attention is required for an optimal Experience. Parents and teachers perhaps sense this when they say, “I want your undivided Attention.”

The following graph provides a visualization of this process. The Pulse that soars in the background is generated from a data stream consisting solely of 1s (Undivided Attention), while the two diminished Pulses in the foreground are generated from two data streams whose sum is 1 (Divided Attention).

Divided Attention diminishes potential Experience

When Attention is divided, the Experience is diminished. For instance, significant levels of either worry and/or pain tend to divide Attention between the focus of attention and the suffering. When in the midst of pain and/or anxiety, food doesn’t taste as delicious, music doesn’t sound as beautiful, and cognitive abilities are diminished.

Dividing Attention (splitting the data stream) compromises Intrinsic Motivation (the Pulse dimensions)

In similar fashion, when future rewards are tied to a creative project, it has the effect of dividing Attention between the project and the reward. In this way, Divided Attention compromises the problem solving capabilities of Intrinsic Motivation. Could this be why hundreds of experiments have shown that offering rewards diminishes the potentials of Intrinsic Motivation? 

Pulse’s behavior parallels 5 types of Attention-related behavior

The Pulse’s mathematical behavior exhibits distinct patterns of correspondence with 4 distinct aspects of living behavior regarding Attention’s relationship with Experience. 1) When the Living Algorithm digests a data stream of sufficient length and consisting of a single number, the Pulse attains its maximum dimensions. In similar fashion, sustained Attention seems to generate a quality Experience. 2) ‘Interrupting’ the unified data stream with a different number or 3) shifting to another number prematurely, diminishes the Pulse’s dimensions. Similarly, interrupting or shifting Attention diminishes the Experience, which could include our cognitive abilities. 4) Splitting the data stream reduces the ideal dimensions of the Pulse, just as Splitting Attention detracts from our potential Experience. In terms of this paper, Splitting Attention between project and rewards diminishes the ideal potentials of Intrinsic Motivation.

Thus far, Intrinsic Motivation seems to fit neatly under the umbrella of our ID Model. How about IM’s other mysteries? Is the umbrella’s perimeter wide enough to shelter these strange creatures? In order to welcome them in, we must introduce another astonishing character in the ID system – the Triple Pulse.

I don’t know what happens next. You must check out Intrinsic Motivation & the Triple Pulse to see how things turn out for our couple. Congruent or incompatible?


3 When the Living Algorithm digests a data stream of sufficient duration and consisting of a single number, for instance 1s, one of the results of this process is a Pulse. Due to the simplicity of the data stream (just a single number), this Pulse is the most basic mathematical form of the Living Algorithm’s digestion process.

Other Articles in the Series

1 The Mysteries of Intrinsic Motivation, 2020

2 Why Intrinsic Motivation belongs to Life’s Information Digestion System, 2020

Why the Creative Process is so Enjoyable, 2020

Why Autonomy enhances Intrinsic Motivation, 2020


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