Better Reward Systems

Two beliefs about rewards…

1. Giving people rewards reinforces behavior. When someone does something you like you should reward them with praise, prizes, and badges.

2. Giving people rewards undermines their intrinsic motivation. It turns intrinsic motivation into extrinsic and reduces the behavior.

Which is right?

Rewards (praise/gamification etc…) derives from a branch of psychology known as behaviorism. Behaviorists believe people are programmable robots. You can teach people what to do through classical conditioning (create a stimulant to trigger a behavior) or operant conditioning (rewarding them for the behavior).

This worked better on rats and pigeons than it did on humans. Outside of the lab, it’s hard to replicate the results. There are too many stimulants and possible rewards. It also turns out people aren’t born tabula rasa.

Worse yet, rewards often (not always) undermine behavior.

But this isn’t the entire truth. One discover of behaviorism, variable rewards, is especially important. If people can’t predict what precise behavior will trigger the reward, they become more likely to engage in that behavior.

Don’t give badges based upon a set criteria. Anticipated rewards don’t help drive behavior.

Give unique badges that reflect the unique, special, contribution members have made to the group.

Give badges based upon – 

If someone shows a unique expertise in a niche topic, give them a special expert badge for that unique topic. {topic} expert.

If someone becomes known for a specific role in a group, give them a badge to reflect it (helpfulness, humour etc…)

If someone creates what you consider a landmark article, give them a landmark article badge.

If you want to get badges right, make them variable.



  1. ForumSentinel says:

    Simple but hadn’t thought of this approach. Great article.

  2. Alessio Fattorini says:

    Agree, I’m already segmenting people so it’s easier to create some badges related.

  3. Sarah Hawk says:

    Should this read the other way around? Rewards turn intrinsic motivation into extrinsic?

    That aside, I agree that this is a great way to practically implement the theory.

    Note that I’m now watching you all – you’d better start doing great things here. :wink:

  4. Richard Millington says:

    Yes! Can you fix?

  5. Ralph Mason says:

    Congratulations! You just earned a “Nice Post” badge from Discourse. :stuck_out_tongue:

  6. Joe Velez says:

    Great article! Agree with all of the above.

    One thing that I want to point out is that there are different types of badges. We have our variable reward, achievement/status, point badges, and others. All offer the recipient something different / something to aim for.

    Variable badges - surprise them
    Achievement/Status badges - let them know that they’ve hit a milestone
    Point badges - let them know they can get something for their effort
    Other badges - these can be badges up for purchase or point exchange eg. No ads, more perks, etc

    It’s great to mix things up but do not go overboard. I’ve seen some sites with 30+ badges. All the same color! (IT WILL JUST MAKES YOUR EFFORT MOOT.)

    For the community, badges offer an opportunity to learn about a poster efficiently.

    As a reader of the site, it would be helpful if I could tell who are the ADMINS/MODS. Red badges for all in this group.

    For long time members, Blue badges.

    For niche experts, a Group badge.

    These type of badges may not offer much to the recipient but they do to others. And, regardless of what you may think personally about receiving a badge people do appreciate them - some more than others.

    Most importantly, Reward Programs do not hurt productivity. If anything you will gain from it.

    If a member comes back to site because of a “badge notification” - you WIN!
    If a member complains that they lost their badge (non-activity, whatever) - you WIN!
    If a member notices that you are an ‘expert’ - you Win!
    If a member contacts another member for a ‘job’ - you Win!

    Oh, I almost forgot … there should be a hierarchy for badges … Some badges are more helpful to the community. These should always be found next to the username on each posted message. eg. usergroup badge, sponsor, expert, etc. (limit badges found here)

    The idea is to make it easy for readers to learn more about the poster.

  7. Sarah Hawk says:

    This is an interesting idea. Are you doing this?

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