Teenagers, Bedrooms and Cash Payments


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I nearly broke my neck

At the entrance to my eldest daughter’s bedroom there is a short flight of steps.  As I went to wake her this morning I slipped on what I could most graciously describe as a pile of underwear.  I took 5 of those steps in one fell swoop.  I think “fell” is the operative word there.

My daughter is now 14, may the lord help me.  I know I shouldn’t swear on-line, but her bedroom is a shit-hole.  Shit-hole is, as the French would say, le mot juste.  I’d need a pitchfork to clean it out.

She needs to tidy her room.  Anybody with a teenage child will be able to relate to the situation.

A little management

What my daughter needs is a little “performance management“.  My wife agrees.  However, rather than the time-honoured approach of bawling her out, we have been discussing the use of incentives.  I like the idea of pay for performance.  I proposed to give her £10 every time she cleans her bedroom.

Mrs L. is less keen.  She has been waving this research paper under my nose.

The experiment

In the 1960’s the psychologist Edward Deci ran an experiment.  He asked some students to help him investigate problem solving ability.

He tasked the students with building three-dimensional models from a range of plastic shapes.  These shapes could be fitted together into a myriad of combinations.  (The puzzle is called soma if you would like to try it).

The experiments ran for 3 one hour periods.  During each hour the students tried to complete 4 different puzzles whilst the scientist timed how long they took.

Half way through each hour, the scientist excused himself and left the room, leaving the student alone with the puzzle and some magazines — The New Yorker, Time and Playboy (this was the late 60’s).  The scientist told the student he would only be a couple of minutes as he had to mark the test scores.  In the interim the student could do whatever they wanted.

When the facilitator returned they went back to timing puzzles.  This whole process was repeated three times.

The test group

Half of the students were placed into a test group.

This group went through almost exactly the same experiment.

  1. In the first hour everything was the same as the control group.
  2. In the second hour the subjects were offered a dollar for every puzzle they completed.
  3. In the third hour the test group was told that all the experimental funding had been spent.  They went back to making the puzzles without an incentive.

The experimental design looked like this:

Experimental Design

What the experiment was really about

It wasn’t a study about problem solving ability.  The experimenters were looking to see what impact an incentive had on motivation.

Unbeknownst to their subjects, when the facilitator walked out of the room to “mark the test scores” he walked into an adjacent room.  There, through a one way mirror, he timed how long the subjects spent completing puzzles when they didn’t have to.  Motivated subjects (he reasoned) would spend more time on the puzzles.  Demotivated subjects would spend less.

The results looked like this:

With the benefit of hindsight the results aren’t too surprising. When you offer an incentive, motivation rises, but if you take it away again, it plummets.

As an aside it does strike me as a little unethical to leave male students alone with copies of Playboy and then watch them through one way mirrors


That is the name scientists have coined for the results.

The over-justification effect occurs when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. The overall effect of offering a reward for a previously unrewarded activity is a shift to extrinsic motivation and the undermining of pre-existing intrinsic motivation. Once rewards are no longer offered, interest in the activity is lost; prior intrinsic motivation does not return, and extrinsic rewards must be continuously offered as motivation to sustain the activity

Or to put it another way…

Be careful what you reward, especially if there is a chance you will take the reward away.

My wife was right

If I start paying my daughter to clean her bedroom I will be locked in for good. If I ever stop I won’t need a pitchfork to clean her room out, I will need a JCB.

Why would I kill what little motivation she has?

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Over-justification effect

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Image by Julie Lane

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


  1. I have a couple of thoughts on this:

    1. Teenagers are slobs. The only motivation that worked with my daughter is when she thought people outside of our family would see her room. Embarrassment works in many situations. 🙂

    2. Within teams, I believe that a little healthy competition is good, however if people are motivated, it’s not a prize at the end that motivates them. It’s showing that they are the best, number one, numero uno that drives them. This is not true of everyone, so one must encourage and praise (when warranted) everyone on the team.

  2. This is very clever. I particularly enjoyed your crafting the post around your teenage daughter and her slop-like behavior, characteristic of most of that species! What comes to mind is the excellent work of Dan Pink and the recognition that rewards work differently between assembly line like work and work requiring problem solving and thought (not just rote actions). You add another feature–removing incentives can cost you big time if you are seeking ways to incent certain behaviors!

  3. Jenn, my daughter isn’t a slob. She is a biological hazard.

    Interesting that in both cases you are singling out the power of peer pressure. Perhaps a boyfriend is the solution to my problems, or maybe not…

    Chip, thanks for the tip, I will have a look and see what he says.

  4. No boyfriends allowed! Just let the aunts and uncles look in her room at the next family event. That’ll work well enough.


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