Crowding out of intrinsic motivations

Published on Wednesday May 25th, 2011

Luis Villa (lawyer, formerly the “geek-in-residence” of The Berkman Center For Internet and Society at Harvard) reviewed the psychological literature on the impact of paying people for work that they once did as volunteers to determine whether its a good idea for the GNOME Project to offer cash prizes (“bounties”) for some code contributions instead of just relying on free labor:

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.

In the end, Villa finds the research inconclusive, but suggests the GNOME project should be very cautious about paying volunteers. This is an example of how intrinsically-motivated participation on the internet is not only encouraged, it may also become mandatory because of the supposedly corrupting influence of money on the value of our contributions. I can imagine this logic used as a justification for cutting wages when companies discover that unpaid customer service reps who work for “a sense of self-determination” are friendlier and more compliant than those who work for $12/hour.


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