The Digital Age has created many new opportunities for the fulfillment of desires. We give our free time and labour to amending an entry in Wikipedia, for example, or to uploading photos onto Demotix, or to making a video on YouTube, or to joining a club on Meetup.com, or to embarking on a quest on World of Warcraft, not because it necessarily makes us money (it probably doesn’t) but because these activities satisfy our desires for autonomy, mastery, purpose and social engagement, perhaps more than our nine-to-five jobs.
So are humans less motivated by financial incentives than classical economics believed? That’s what social scientists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester decided. Deci and Ryan carried out a series of experiments in the 1970s and 1980s, which suggested that, when you introduce a financial incentive for an interesting activity, you can actually reduce people’s motivation to do it. Why? Because something that was previously intrinsically fun and interesting then becomes extrinsically motivated: we do it merely to get the reward, and stop caring about the activity in-and-for itself.