Savine is working on his Ph.D. in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, and I asked him about results from a study that appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience. Here's how it worked: Test subjects participated in a series of tasks. "Before people performed the goal, they were cued as to whether there would be a chance to earn money on the trial or not," Savine says.
Participants across the board performed better when they knew in advance they could earn money on the goal. "You can see people flip the switch on and off in terms of the effort they put into the task, depending on whether they were cued, 'Yes, you could earn money on it,' or cued, 'Nah, you were just performing it for its own sake,'" he says.
I appreciate it when a scientist breaks things down for me in terms of "yes" or "nah." But what I really wanted to know were the implications for my parenting style. According to Savine, an area of the brain about two inches above the left eyebrow shows increased activity when there's money on the line. Lovely information to have, but how does that translate to motivating my kids to pick up the Legos all over the playroom? Or my husband to scrub the pasta pot? Here's how that conversation went:
SLB: I want to motivate my six-year-old to help out more around the house. So what are you recommending?
AS: Make sure kids value what you're trying to motivate them with. So they know what a gold star, or something like it, translates to. And make sure this motivator is completely tied to the task they're doing. Also, they should know the exact contingencies. If it's cleaning her room, tell her the strategy you want her to use, the way you would expect her to clean her room.
SLB: Should I use money as a motivator? Or would something like ice cream be better?
AS: They light up the brain in different ways. Money is a little farther removed than an immediate gratification like ice cream. You would have to imagine that an adult would respond more to money than a child.
SLB: Is every person motivated in the same way?
AS: There are individual differences. Some people aren't as inclined to go for the extrinsic motivator - say, money or a piece of candy - and if you motivate those people in that way it might actually hinder their performance. You have to know the personalities of people you're dealing with.
SLB: Any other general advice for teachers, parents, spouses, trying to motivate people around them?
AS: Make sure the exact behavior that you want to reinforce - and the way of getting it - is motivated in advance. To give motivation after an outcome is decided is not going to help with the behavior nearly as well.
SLB: So, if you know so much about motivation, do you ever procrastinate?
AS: More than I would like to admit.
Photo of Adam Savine, Washington University
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