Why reward may be your digital sugar

As a scientist, I tend to live on a pretty low reward diet during working hours: projects take years and it takes months before being rewarded with a citation. Is this a healthy diet when it comes to practicing our movements? My research suggests that it is.

We love reward (in bigger quantities than we need it)

To discover in which quantities people like to be rewarded, we performed a motor learning experiment among 538 children and adults at science center NEMO. We used a ‘virtual fly catching’ task, in which participants had to catch flies without seeing their hand. To test the influence of reward on motivation and learning, we rewarded different groups of participants for 30%, 50% or 70% of their movements with scored points.

We found that the group that received the highest amount of reward reported that they enjoyed the task best. There were no ages differences in how participants responded to the rewards. Most interestingly, the reward didn’t have to be contingent with performance to be liked: a group that was rewarded at random on 50% of the trials enjoyed the task better than the group that was rewarded for the better 30% of their movements! The full results have been published in PLOS One.

Rewards may be unhealthy for learning

Rewards have a bigger impact than just on our ‘liking’ of a task. As the behaviorists already showed, they can be used to shape behavior. When rewards are designed to make us like a task, they may be overly abundant. As children’s play, exercise and rehabilitation rely on an ever greater amount of digital products, we need research on how rewards affect our ability to learn.

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