crowding out of intrinsic motivations- aka, the bounty problem

A couple GUADECs ago, I agreed to do some good old fashioned research for the board on the issue of ‘crowding out of intrinsic motivations’- in other words, what happens when you start paying volunteers? I had been told by someone (I believe by the excellent Karim Lakhani) that there was good research demonstrating repeatedly that paying volunteers can have a counter-intuitive effect- that paid volunteers end up working less. I didn’t do the follow-up research, unfortunately, so I was unprepared to discuss the issue when bounties came up a few months later in a GNOME Foundation Board meeting at GUADEC.

While reading Karim’s dissertation (verdict: excellent and interesting- a blog about that when I finish it) I came across a reference to a key paper in the field. Today, in between world cup matches, I finally sat down and found the paper (here), and started reading it. Thanks to the excellent, I was able to find an even better series of papers citing that one, providing context and lots more information. I strongly recommend anyone thinking about bounties or other financial incentives in a free software context read in particular ‘Motivation Crowding Theory: a Survey of Empirical Evidence’, by Frey and Jegen. (Ignore the economics; skip to the examples, which are really interesting.) Herewith some notes and comments:

  • while at first the idea is counterintuitive, the basic notion is straightforward: when people do things for their own intrinsic goodness (i.e., for reasons other than payment), introducing payment can reduce the amount of invovement.
  • Clearest example I’ve found in the quick literature skim so far: an experiment on parents who used Israeli child care. The parents had to pick up their kids at the end of the day; being late was not punished financially, but obviously was an inconvenience to the teachers. When fines were instituted, presumably parents would get more timely in picking up their kids, since they had whatever motivated them previously, plus the fine. The opposite occured- parents became worse at picking their kids up on time when the fine was in place. The real kicker? The fine was canceled… and parents did not return to their original level of picking kids up on time. They had been permanently (at least for the duration of the experiment) ‘ruined.’ (Referenced article is here, but not available publicly, unfortunately; I read about it in Frey and Jegen.)
  • The basic psychological rationale behind crowding out theory is that as soon as you pay people (or introduce other ‘forcing’ incentives, like increased managerial oversight of employees), you’re reducing the sense of self-determination and self-esteem, and so their intrinsic motivation- doing it because they want to help others, or because it is fun, or because they are embarassed to seem like they don’t care about their kids.
  • This isn’t all bad- there are also examples of ‘crowding in’, where external incentives can strengthen pre-existing intrinsic motivations- for example, if laws are structured to imply to citizens that citizens are trusted, they may in fact act in a more trust-worthy manner because they feel more valued/respected/etc.
  • There is at least some controversy about this theory in academia. There is a faction of behavioralist psychologists who argues that the whole thing is BS. However, both of the papers by economists that I read suggested that this faction’s research was deeply flawed and conclusively disproved by the first paper I linked to. There are apparently also a number of economists who don’t believe that this effect can be more significant than positive economic incentives (i.e., they believe that increased pay will always increase supply, without exception); the second paper I linked to seems like a fairly conclusive debunking of this position.
  • I have not yet seen references to research into community-wide crowding out; i.e., if I’m offered money to do bug work, does that crowd out incentives for Elijah and Olav? (The anecdotal evidence would suggest ‘no’, but perhaps that is partially because of the large gap between volunteering and full-time jobs- bounties may be different in this respect.)
  • Directly relevant to GNOME, there is some research that indicates that paying volunteers can reduce their overall level of contribution. Specifically, it concludes that those paid small amounts in correlation with volunteering work fewer hours than the average volunteer, while those paid large amounts end up working more hours than the average volunteer. The data is survey based, rather than experiment-based, though, so I’m a little leery of placing too much weight on it- the effects may well be correlation and not causation, though the study authors do attempt to control for other causes.

So, uh, what does all this mean? Not sure it means a whole lot, exactly- none of the research is so strong as to be conclusive or suggest direct guidelines for a bounty-issuing volunteer organization. It does suggest to me that we should consider doing more reading and research before substantially expanding payments to volunteers. Given the suggestion that these communities are fragile (i.e, that once you’ve destroyed the sense of intrinsic motivation, it doesn’t come back) it suggests that this isn’t something to be trifled with without thought. Finally, it suggests that there is a very, very good psych/econ paper lurking in google’s bounty system- surely this is one of the widest-scale experiments in potential crowding out ever, and if someone can figure out a clever way of measuring the impact, they should have a very good paper and very useful advice for us on their hands.

Anyway, the last two papers (not the first one, it is by psychologists and substantially more unreadable than the other two) took me only a couple hours to read; I’d suggest that anyone interested in this topic should suck them down and give them a read.

35 thoughts on “crowding out of intrinsic motivations- aka, the bounty problem”

  1. wrote about this a few months ago, and summarized like this: When people do things for their own intrinsic goodness (i.e., for reasons other than payment), introducing payment can reduce the amount of invovement. I urge you to read Luis Villa’s blog entry about this, and specifically the Motivation Crowding Theory: A Survey of Empirical Evidence paper.

  2. wrote about this a few months ago, and summarized like this: When people do things for their own intrinsic goodness (i.e., for reasons other than payment), introducing payment can reduce the amount of invovement. I urge you to read Luis Villa’s blog entry about this, and specifically the Motivation Crowding Theory: A Survey of Empirical Evidence paper.

  3. Davyd Madeley: I feel inclined, to blow my mindThomas Thurman: a collection of stuffDavid Trowbridge: Color optimization, take twoLuis Villa: people switching and other misc. linksOwen Taylor: Just like Riding a BikeLuis Villa: crowding out of intrinsic motivations- aka, the bounty problemKristian Rietveld: time is running a little too fast at the momentDaniel Veillard: 18 Jun 2006Steve Frécinaux: Fix my keyboard, fix your apps!Luis Villa: organic strawberry picking

  4. the teachers/ school). They THOUGHT it would incentivise the parents to be on time … but the OPPOSITE OCCURRED! Since Parents considered that they were now paying, it was suddenly okay to be late to pick up the kids, and incidences sky-rocketed!See Here for the best reference i can find to this experiment. Best I can find in 20 Seconds anyway. I think it was reference in Tim Hartfords book “The Undercover Economist” or “Freakonomics”

  5. open source. I think it would be a way to offer a more directed approach for users to give back while seeing their goals accomplised and at the same time providing devs with a financial reward that keeps them having bread on the table. Today I read aninteresting articlethat discusses research work which came to the conclusion that offering financial rewards where previously none were given can decrease involvement of the participants instead of increasing it. I guess this is not as easy as it seems. But I would

  6. else in the community following the rules. When Novell “defected” from the community’s expectations, the rest of the community felt a need to ostracize it to ensure that no one else would be tempted to similarly defect. Luis also linked tothis old post of hiswhich has more interesting citations on intrinsic motivations.

  7. My latest Villa’s Blog / crowding out of intrinsic motivations- aka, the bounty problemcrowding out of intrinsic motivations Download details: Microsoft Filter Pack ability to search for text within office documents (not included by default ;-)) See Sharp: C#: Class for generating image thumbnails using Windows Shell

  8. […] I forgot to mention that my post about bounties and ‘crowding out’ was motivated by Herzi’s use of fundable to motivate handwriting recognition work. I have no firm opinion on this yet- it seems likely that the ’self-funding’ nature of fundable might avoid some of the problems described in the literature that I linked to. In the mean time, I want good tablet support sooner rather than later so I’ve pledged support :) […]

  9. […] Debian – Proposal to fund Debian reveals debate about developers’ motivations [21/09/2006] – The Dunc-Tank is an experiment to see how targetted fund raising can improve Debian – The first (and perhaps only) project Dunc is being applied to is the task of getting Debian 4.0, aka “etch” to be released on time. – Of bounties, donations and summers of code influence on volunteer participation [19/09/2006] – crowding out of intrinsic motivations- aka, the bounty problem [18/06/2006] […]

  10. […] I’ve written in the past about use of online pledge systems to fund bounty-style payoffs for developers, so I thought I’d note that the nouveau project appears to be doing something similar. So far over halfway to the pledge drive goal with a month remaining- which is very interesting. I have pledged (free drivers are ultra-critical to our long-term health), though I wish they’d been much more explicit about what/who the money will go to (and I might not pay up on the pledge until they are at least a little more clear on that.) […]

  11. […] I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but those who were interested in my past post on intrinsic motivation might be interested in this study on the psychology of money, from Science late last year. Apparently even the mere mention of money can make people less helpful- “Reminders of money, relative to nonmoney reminders, led to reduced requests for help and reduced helpfulness toward others.” There is also a related article which gives some context. Note that the survey was performed on undergrads in Minnesota and so probably has significant cultural biases; it would be very interesting to see a cross-cultural replication of the survey methodology. […]

  12. […] for example, states as a fact that Dunc-Tank “has demotivated a lot of people.” Others cite theoretical research by Luis Villa of GNOME that seems to indicate that payment reduces volunteers’ “sense of self-determination and […]

  13. […] DebianコミュニティとDunc-Tankとの議論はまだ続いており、それぞれの側の主張は、より広範囲に及ぶFOSSコミュニティにとっても、興味深い内容といえる。Dunc-Tankの支持者にとって、この問題は単純明快である。過剰にならない範囲で妥当な額の報酬を提供すれば、Debianコミュニティの選ばれたメンバーたちは自らのFOSS活動にフルタイムで専念できるというわけだ。しかし、Dunc-Tankの反対者には、こうした報酬が不平等なものに思える。例えば、Debian開発者Joey Schultze氏は、Dunc-Tankによって「多くの関係者の意欲が奪われた」と言う。また、報酬の支払いによって「自己決断および自発性の意識」を有志たちが失い、その結果「ほかの人々の力になりたいから、あるいは楽しいから」という理由では参加しなくなる点を示唆しているように見える、GNOMEのLuis Villa氏による理論的な調査結果に言及するDebian開発者もいる。 […]

  14. […] All of these motivations can be more or less valid at different points in time, in ways that (again) deserve a different post. (For example, automatic attribution may not have the same impact as “human” attribution, which may not be a surprise given the evidence on crowding out of intrinsic motivations.) […]

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