Small prize, big reward

Win a prize! Impress your friends! A recent study suggests that even small, monetarily worthless rewards can inspire big competition when those rewards are highly visible within a group of potential competitors. Your grade-school teacher figured this out—think about the stickers you earned for good behavior. It also turns up in college football, where hard work on the field earns players stickers to put on their helmets.


  1. This is so very true. As an office manager, on a slow day I once observed that a sudden and public assignment of points to someone who performed a routine but satisfactory task sparked a fervent competition in the staff for practically no other reason.

  2. I’m familiar with a similar study run over the last six years or so that found the exact same thing. It’s called “World of Warcraft.”

  3. When I was in 3rd grade, Mrs. Glore gave us gold stars on a big chart for the multiplication tables; a grid with our names down the Y-axis and cells for 1-12. Get the “3’s” right, get a star next to your name in the “3” column, etc.

    After a month or so of this, I hadn’t filled in any but the easist columns; 1, 2, 10. Mrs. Glore brought this up as a concern at a parent-teacher meeting, and my Mom then brought it up as a concern with me. “Why,” she asked, “aren’t you doing your times tables at school?”

    “Because I’ve got a whole box of gold stars in my craft drawer,” I answered.

    Still makes sense to me, 26 years later.

  4. I thought it said win a pretzel. My friends would be impressed by that.

    We get rewards were I work. It was described in a way that I found no different than explanations of operant conditioning.

  5. This has been known for a long, long time, really. Think of medals and citations in military forces going back to Roman times.

    In the end, what we crave as social beasts is recognition, and money is actually pretty limited in providing that. The only advantage to money is how it lets us trade assets and favours, really.

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