Every day when we open our email, snail mail, and even our junk mail, we’re inundated with opportunities to win, win, win! Even in my weekly “Buy One Get One” booklet they offer me the chance to win $500 by finding their hidden clues. This mailer is designed to save me money. Why do they have to “lure” me in with the offer of a quick cash prize?
Last week I received this incentive-based email: Send us your video describing three secrets to happiness. Winner gets an iPhone 6.
I happened to be on a conference call where a number of people had also received this email. Their reactions were fascinating:
Voice 1: My first thought was, yay, an iPhone 6! That’s a great prize! I want an iPhone 6; I’ll send my video. But, there are so many other people competing for that iPhone, the likelihood of winning is so slim, I give up! I’m not that creative.
Voice 2: I don’t think the prize is that big of a deal. I already have an iPhone 6.
Voice 3: I recorded my message when they first asked for videos two days ago—I thought it was a cool opportunity to share some ideas I’m passionate about. There was no mention of a prize. I didn’t realize it was a contest, so maybe I shouldn’t send it in. But, maybe someone will benefit from my secrets. I guess I’ll send it in.
Voice 2: Good for you, you are a better person than I am.
I know that the people who sponsor these contests have the best of intentions. They hope to “motivate” people to participate in activities or programs they believe are worth promoting. Unfortunately, they all share a fatal flaw. Contests and prizes have the opposite effect of their intention. Contests and prizes distract people from higher-quality reasons to do what you are asking them to do.
- Voice 1 was externally motivated by the iPhone. This is a suboptimal motivational outlook. Once they determined the prize and the chances of winning weren’t worth the effort, they were no longer interested.
- Voice 2 was disinterested in the prize and checked out of the contest immediately. Again, this was a suboptimal outlook. By not aligning the video request with meaningful values or connecting it to a greater purpose, there was no desire to participate.
- The only person who sent a video was Voice 3, who had taken action before the activity became a contest. Voice 3 had an optimal motivation outlook because of a need to share important ideas.
The science of motivation has valid proof that being distracted by a “prize” undermines people’s three basic psychological needs:
- Attaching a prize or reward to a request shifts people’s attention to something they cannot control—winning the prize—and undermines their sense of autonomy.
- Competition pits individual against individual—setting up a scenario where you have a bunch of disappointed losers and one winner—and undermines people’s sense of relatedness. The prize changes the focus away from the value, purpose, and fun of the activity, adding to diminished relatedness.
- Competition pressures people to be the best—not to be their best, but the best—and pressure not only results in thwarting people’s autonomy, it undermines creativity, performance, and their sense of competence.
Knowing this, why do we keep throwing contests and prizes at people as motivation strategies? Before you default to a contest to prompt participation in a fun event, healthy activity, or meaningful behavior change, consider these alternatives:
- Question why the contest is necessary. If you have to bribe people to do what you want them to do, maybe your event, activity, or proposed behavior change isn’t fun, practical, or compelling—even if it’s for their own good. Research shows that when people are motivated by the prize, shortly after the contest ends, they revert back to their old behavior, or worse. Rethink what you are asking.
- Consider how you position your request. Have you been clear about the focus, meaning, and purpose of what you are asking? Have you explained, for example, why you care about others’ ideas of happiness? Imposing values on people will backfire. But, being honest about your values and clearly articulating the reasons underlying your request gives people the choice to agree or find their own good reasons for participating.
- Help people find a deeper, more meaningful reason for participating. Ask: Why participate in this activity? Why make a video with three secrets to happiness? You cannot impose reasons on people, but you can help them remember how much fun it is to share crazy ideas that make others laugh; you can ignite their desire to contribute to a legacy of collective wisdom; or stimulate awareness of the joy that comes from helping others. Take the time to help people think beyond the prize.
There may be a time and place for contests, but people need the skill to convert pressure into positive energy, shift an external focus to internal resourcefulness, and reframe scores into data that provides valuable insights about growth and learning. People need to understand how to align participation in the contest with their own developed values, sense of purpose, or intrinsic joy. Don’t distract them by asking them to keep their eye on a prize that may never come. They will be rewarded in more meaningful ways than any prize you can afford. And, then everyone is a winner.