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.