Positive feedback that undermines intrinsic motivation

Does positive feedback always have a positive effect on intrinsic motivation? Studies such as described in this book provide clear answers.

Well done, your finger placement is very good!

Suppose someone is learning a new skill because he is interested in learning that skill. John, for example, took lessons to learn play the Cello. Suppose his teacher would say:” In our previous lesson I suggested you would practice your finger placement, remember? Could you play something, so that I can see if I have explained myself properly last time?’ Suppose John would then play something and afterwards his teacher would say: “Your finger placement is very good, well done! It’s particularly good how you move your index finger. We will now focus on the next step forward, because you’ve already mastered this bit’. What do you think will be the effect on Johns intrinsic motivation?

Well done, you’re performing just as you should!

Now imagine John again but with a different teacher. This time his teacher says: “The homework I gave you last time was to practice your finger placement. Well, I want you to show me what you can do. Good luck!” Suppose John then plays something and afterwards the teacher says: “You have performed just as I had expected and just as you should have done!” What do you expect the effect on intrinsic motivation will be this time?

Functional significance

Positive feedback may increase intrinsic motivation depending on how the persons attributes the feedback. The functional significance that the feedback has for the person determines the effect on intrinsic motivation. The positive feedback can either be perceived as informative or controlling. Whether the positive feedback is perceived one way or the other very much depends on the words chosen.

Informative

If the person experiences the positive feedback as information regarding his performance or behaviour, the effect on intrinsic motivation will most likely be positive. That is, because both the feeling of autonomy and the perception of competence remain intact. If the teacher gives John the information he is doing well and specifies what he is doing well, John will perceive this feedback as information regarding what he does that works.

Controlling

However, if someone experiences positive feedback as a form of pressure to behave as they should behave, the effect on intrinsic motivation will most likely be negative. The external pressure to perform and behave in a certain way threatens the perception of autonomy. Pressure like this undermines intrinsic motivation. If the teacher tells John he performs just as he should, John will most likely experience this as controlling.
When people feel they are being judged or controlled by others, their intrinsic motivation suffers. The same applies when the positive feedback is felt as a reward for good behaviour or good performance. Even so when the positive feedback is saliently given in a controlling context (such as in a competition or when the student must perform to get a good grade).

Informative positive feedback

The benefits of positive feedback can be that someone feels more competent and confident to keep on trying and practicing. However, these positive effects only happen when the person does not feel judged or controlled.

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