Incentive Effect on Performance of Mechanical Tasks Relative to Cognitive Skills Tasks

Topic: How the level of monetary incentive influence performance for mechanical and cognitive skills tasks

Researchers: Dan Ariely (Professor of Behavioral Economics, Duke University, US) and colleagues

Published By: The New York Times, November 19th, 2008


Year: Probably 2006-2008

Main Conclusion: When it comes to mechanical skills, higher incentives lead to better performance; however, if even rudimentary cognitive skills are required, higher incentive leads to worse performance.

Description of Experiment

a. Researchers offered MIT students the opportunity to get a bonus for performing one task that called for some cognitive skill (adding numbers) and another one that required only a mechanical skill (tapping a key as fast as possible).

b. Participants were divided into 2 groups:

Group A. was offered $60 bonus.

Group B. was offered $600 bonus.

c. When the task required only a mechanical skill (tapping a key as fast as possible), Group B. did better than Group A.

d. When the task required some cognitive skill (adding numbers), Group A. did better than Group B.


As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance.  But when a task required even rudimentary cognitive skill, the outcome was: the offer of a higher bonus led to poorer performance.