Research Review: Rewards & motivation | Precision Nutrition

Research Review: Rewards & motivation

By Jennifer Koslo


Although it seems like setting One Big Hairy Goal is the path to success, this week’s study shows that we tend to work harder for multiple small rewards than for one large reward. So to stay motivated, set several smaller goals and separate your rewards into multiple categories.


Goals tend to give us a sense of purpose and direction. And research shows that if incentives or rewards are linked to goals, people feel more motivated and work even harder. That’s why we’re more likely to reach our goals if we associate them with a reward.

But what happens if we get more particular than that? What if we place rewards into discrete categories, such as work, entertainment, or health? Do we become more motivated and work even harder to earn one of each kind of reward?

According to this week’s study, we do work harder. And we may achieve more, too.

Categories and motivation

Imagine going to the supermarket one day to find all the food types jumbled together – the fresh spinach next to the Doritos® and the cantaloupe next to the Gummy Bears®.

Not only would it be a confusing chore to shop, but there’d be no particular reason for you (Healthy Eater) to stick to the outside aisles (where the fresh, unprocessed foods are typically kept) or for your neighbor (Mr. Unhealthy Eater) to wander into those inner aisles (where the processed foods ordinarily get stored).

Hmm, interesting thought isn’t it?

Put simply, arranging things in categories helps us complete tasks more efficiently and with less fuss. (Well, duh… that’s why we create categories in the first place!)

But let’s take the thought a step further and apply the idea of categorization to the realm of rewards and motivation.

What’s more motivating to you – one big reward, or a bunch of smaller rewards, each tied to a specific area of your life where you’d like to make improvements?

Your first thought might be the big reward. But think again.

It turns out that smaller, discrete rewards for highly specific goals are actually more motivating than you might imagine.

What do you think; one big reward or a series of smaller ones for motivation?

Here’s an example to illustrate: If you’ve ever been a Scout or a Brownie or a Guide (or had a son or daughter who was) then you’re familiar with Scouting’s numerous badge categories.

To earn a badge in a particular category, you have to complete a certain type of task. You take a First Aid course to earn the safety badge. You volunteer in the community to earn a community service badge, and sell a specified number of cookies to earn a cookie-selling badge. And so on.

Pretty soon, if you expend a bit of effort, you’ll have, not just one, but a vast collection of badges to show off to your friends. And the interesting thing is, most kids don’t need too much persuasion to start working like crazy to earn them!

What is it about separating rewards into categories that motivates people to want one of each?

Girl Scout Badges

What is motivation?

Ah, motivation. Some people have it and some, apparently, don’t.

Psychologists have been studying human motivation for a long, long, long time – but that doesn’t mean they all agree on what it is or where it comes from. (1,2) If you talk to a behaviorist, for instance, she’ll argue that motivation stems from external goals, while a humanist will put it down to felt needs.

Then there’s Yale business professor Victor Vroom’s “expectancy theory.” (3) Expectancy theory states that motivation is a factor of:

  • how much a person wants x outcome
  • their assessment of how likely they are to achieve x outcome if y effort is put forth,
  • and their belief that they can do it.

Other theories of motivation explore the role of incentives and the degree to which they can make people work harder to reach a goal.

Theorists have been able to suggest how incentives affect behavior, but can we go a step further and predict behavior in the presence of incentives?

And what happens if we fail to reach a goal – or get an associated reward? Do people feel regret as a result? Regret is an unpleasant emotion. So, is it possible that the fear of feeling regret can itself be a motivating factor?


“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.”
Henry David Thoreau

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”
Kurt Vonnegut

Feeling regret is part of the human condition. “If only I moved to Miami, Florida instead of Lincoln, Nebraska, then I might have become a famous Flamenco dancer.”


As you might have guessed, researchers have studied regret along with what people would do to avoid feeling it. Regret theory holds that the anticipation of regret affects decision-making. Typically, people behave in ways that will minimize future regret (4).

Speaking of which… one method we use in our attempts to calculate future regret is categorization. For example, when you made the decision to pursue Flamenco dancing in Lincoln vs. Miami, you might have created a list of pros and cons (in other words, into categories!) to help you to make your decision.

But categorizing – while it speeds the decision-making process – also makes it easier to see what we may have missed out on.

So… back to motivation.

  • We know that people hate to feel regret.
  • We also know that they love to “tick off” check boxes or attain categories of items (like earning those Girl Scout badges).

Where does that leave us in terms of understanding how to motivate individuals?


Research question

This week’s research review asks:

Does separating incentives into categories make people work harder to attain those incentives, even when those categories are meaningless?

And does the dreaded FMO — fear of “missing out” — explain the relationship between putting incentives into categories and increased motivation?

Wiltermuth, S.S., Francesca, G. “I’ll have one of each”: How separating rewards into (meaningless) categories increases motivation. J Pers Soc Psychol, Nov 26, 2012. doi: 10.1037/a0030835


The researchers conducted a series of six distinct experiments to rule out alternative mechanisms that could potentially explain the effects just as well as their hypothesis.

In this study, researchers collected quantitative data by having the subjects complete a task and then fill out a questionnaire that used a rating scale. For example, on a scale of 1 to 7 with 1 being the worst and 7 being the best, how would you rate this article?

Experimental protocol

Because each of the experiments were done separately, the number and type of subjects were different for each one. All experiments used random assignment of subjects, and in all but experiment 5, the researcher was blinded to the conditions.

This bit is pretty long, so if you can’t stand the suspense, skip to the findings.

Experiment 1

In the first experiment, the researchers examined whether splitting incentives into arbitrary categories leads people to apply more effort towards a goal.


63 undergraduate business students (56% female, 44% male, mean age = 21) at a large private University on the West Coast of the US participated in exchange for course credit.


This study had two experimental conditions: categorization and no-categorization. In the categorization group, subjects completed a simple task (transcribing text) and were told they could do it for 10 or for 20 minutes. Ten minutes of work earned them a reward from either container 1 or 2, and 20 minutes earned them a reward from the other container.

In the no-categorization group subjects were told they could choose something from either bin at 10 minutes and again from either bin at 20 minutes (this group had more choice). The rewards were items from a dollar store like stationary and food items that were all mixed together.


Completion of a questionnaire that used a rating scale (1= not at all, to 7 = very much). Subjects reported on how motivated they were to earn the first reward, how motivated they were to earn the second reward, and how much they enjoyed the task.

Experiment 2

In experiment 2, researchers replicated experiment 1, using a loss rather than a gain frame (i.e. fear of regret) and valuation of rewards to measure effort.

In other words they examined whether participants would work longer to avoid losing rewards from two categories than they would to avoid losing multiple rewards from a single category, and whether the value of the rewards had any effect.


131 business students (56% female, 44% male, mean age = 21) at a large private University on the West Coast of the US participated in exchange for course credit.


This study used a 2 x 2 between-subjects design in which participants were randomly assigned to one of the four experimental conditions. The same task was used as in experiment 1, but in this study the participants selected their potential rewards first.

For the categorization condition, they chose their potential rewards from container 1 and 2 (1 item for 10 minutes, 2 for 20 minutes), while those in the no-categorization cohort chose from either container (1 item for 10 minutes, 2 for 20).
Researchers also separated participants further into valuation (calculate the monetary value of your rewards) and no-valuation.


As in experiment 1, subjects completed a questionnaire at the end.

Experiment 3

Next, researchers replicated experiment 1, this time using a loss rather than a gain frame (i.e. fear of regret), plus a different measure of motivation (self-reported task performance) to measure effort.

Here, they were trying to discover whether participants would be more motivated if they knew that hard work would prevent them from missing out on a reward.


172 online participants (49% female, 51% male, mean age = 33) recruited from’s MTurk website.


The task was alphabetizing groups of three fruits. Before beginning, participants were shown a list of rewards they could choose from if they completed 70% of the task, and were told if they completed 90% of the task, they could have not just one, but two rewards.

This experiment manipulated how the rewards were categorized using three conditions: no-categorization, two of two (2 rewards from 2 categories), and two of four (2 rewards from 4 categories).


Completion of a questionnaire as in the previous experiments.

Experiment 4

In this experiment, researchers examined whether the “categorization of rewards effect” is strongest when increased effort can largely eliminate the fear of “missing out” associated with failing to obtain a second reward.

In other words they replicated experiment 3, but directly asked participants about feelings of missing out.


131 online participants (65% female, 45% male, mean age = 31) recruited from’s MTurk website.


Random assignment was used for 2 conditions: categorization and no-categorization. Similar tasks and conditions were used as in the previous experiments but in this study, they were first asked, “How much would you be missing out on something if you did not earn both rewards?”


Self-reported fear of missing out and self-report of how much of the task they completed.

Experiment 5

Here researchers examined how fear mediates the link between categorization and increased motivation.

In other words, they built on the results of experiment 4 and used a different categorization of rewards by not referring to the various rewards as falling into categories at all. Participants were simply offered potential prizes from two or three containers.


101 university students from a city in the south-east US (57% male, 43% female, mean age = 22).


Participants completed a simple task with two experimental conditions: two or three containers of potential rewards. However, in this study, all of the rewards were initially in one big basket, and then, while providing instructions to the participants, the experimenter dumped them into the containers (two or three depending on the condition)

The participants were allowed to look at the rewards before beginning the task, and again, depending on how much work they did, they could select one or two rewards at the end.


The measure was completion of a questionnaire asking “How much would you be missing out on something if you did not earn both rewards?” and “How much would you fear missing out?”

Experiment 6

Lastly, experimenters tested their hypothesis that categorizing incentives can increase motivation by instilling feelings of anticipated regret and fear of missing out even when the word “category” is omitted and when subjects are told that the researcher doesn’t care how long they work.


131 undergraduate business students (51% female, 49% male, mean age = 20).


Same task completion and time conditions, i.e work for five minutes to earn one reward, work for 10 minutes to earn two rewards. There were three conditions: 2 of 2 containers, combined containers, and 2 of 3 containers.


Prior to the study, subjects completed a questionnaire about anticipated feelings of regret if they did not work the full 10 minutes to receive the second reward.


Does putting rewards in categories – even if those categories are arbitrary – lead a person to work hard to earn one of each kind of reward?

And can a fear of missing out can explain why people work harder to earn an extra reward?

Experiment 1

Participants in the categorization condition were more likely to transcribe for the full 20 minutes (34.4%) than those in the no-categorization condition (9.7%). They also reported that they were more motivated to earn the second reward and that they enjoyed the task more.

These results support the idea that we’ll work harder to earn rewards that are placed into separate categories.

Experiment 2

As in experiment 1, categorization made a difference. 49 % of subjects in the categorization group transcribed for the full 20 minutes versus 33% of those in the no-categorization group.

As in experiment 1, subjects in the categorization group reported being more motivated to obtain the second reward. Having the participants estimate the value of the rewards first had no effect.

Experiment 3

The results of experiment 1 and 2 were replicated: Categorization increased work time and motivation in the 2 of 2 rewards group as compared to the no-categorization group.

However, in the 2 of 4 rewards group, motivation was not any higher. This suggests that knowing they couldn’t earn rewards from all four categories reduced subjects’ motivation to work.

Experiment 4

Participants in the categorization condition were more concerned with missing out than those in the no-categorization condition. They also completed more of the task.

Experiment 5

Consistent with all previous experiments, the participants in the categorization group worked harder and longer (62%) than those in the no-categorization group and they reported being more concerned about missing out. They also reported more fear of missing out.

Experiment 6

Consistent with all previous experiments, participants in the 2 of 2 containers group were more likely to work for the full 10 minutes (69%) than those in the combined containers group (46%) or the 2 of 3 containers group (26%). Those in the 2 of 2 group also reported higher anticipated feelings of regret than subjects in the other groups.


The results of the six experiments clearly indicate that when incentives are placed into categories, even if these categories are arbitrary, people work harder and longer in order to earn the greatest number of potential rewards.

This is interesting data for sure! It seems that it’s less enticing for us to choose a prize from one big heap than it is to choose from two separate containers.

And being able to choose a reward from each of two containers is more motivating than having to choose two rewards from four containers (where we know in advance that we can’t earn a reward from all four containers.)

In the study, this categorization and fear-of-missing-out effect even persisted when the participants got to look at the rewards ahead of time, and saw that their monetary value was not high. (Remember, the rewards were dollar store wonders like hot chocolate and stationery – not items that the subjects were likely to value terribly highly).

The results also showed that if the participants could eliminate the fear of missing out they worked longer and harder.

The bigger picture

In terms of the big picture in psychological and behavioral research, what these experiments show is that there’s a link between categories of rewards, anticipated regret, and motivation.

The data provide some insight into the inner workings of human motivation, with potential applications at the individual level as well as in the workplace, in schools, and in formal psychological and behavioral counseling.

This study asked participants to complete essentially meaningless tasks and offered relatively uninteresting rewards. Future studies could investigate whether the subject’s estimation of the importance of the task and the value of the potential reward would affect that person’s level of motivation.

This particular study didn’t assess people’s inherent need for achievement (and how that might vary between different people) or how the results might be affected if subjects also had to work under time constraints.

Bottom line

This study offers some easy personal applications.

Give yourself multiple small rewards or goals

If you’re working on exercise goals, consider setting up some rewards for yourself, and dividing them into specific categories.

For example: maybe you value entertainment and pampering, but rarely treat yourself to these.

  1. If you complete two strength workouts per week, allow yourself a reward from your “entertainment category” (e.g. tickets to the matinee).
  2. If, in addition to the workouts, you lift 5 more pounds in each exercise each week, treat yourself to a second reward from the “pamper category” (e.g. a 60 minutes massage).

Beware FMO

On the other hand, this study also suggests why you shouldn’t spend too much time surfing for new and better nutrition and exercise plans. You’ll feel that “fear of missing out” and be tempted to jump ship all the time, just in case you’re missing out on something better.

Notice when you feel pulled off course by FMO.

Start with a small handful of goals and rewards in different categories. But don’t give yourself too much choice. Make a plan and stick to it.

And hey… why not get yourself a snappy badge scarf?

Give it a whirl and see if it gives you the motivation you need to make things happen.



Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

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