The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Awards

44 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2018 Last revised: 13 Feb 2019

See all articles by Carly Robinson

Carly Robinson

Brown University; Harvard University

Jana Gallus

UCLA Anderson

Monica Lee

Stanford University

Todd Rogers

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: July 24, 2018


It is common for organizations to offer awards to motivate individual behavior, yet few empirical studies evaluate their effectiveness in the field. We report a randomized field experiment (N = 15,329) that tests the impact of two common types of symbolic awards: pre-announced awards (prospective) and surprise awards (retrospective). The context is U.S. schools, where we explore how awards motivate student attendance. Contrary to our pre-registered hypotheses and organizational leaders’ expectations, the prospective awards did not on average improve behavior, and the retrospective awards decreased subsequent attendance. Moreover, we find a significant negative effect on attendance after prospective incentives were removed, which points to a crowding-out effect. Survey experiments probing the mechanisms suggest that awards may cause these unintended effects by inadvertently signaling that the target behavior (perfect attendance) is neither the social norm nor institutionally expected. In addition, receiving the retrospective award suggests to recipients that they have already outperformed the norm and what was expected of them, hence licensing them to miss school. Exploratory analyses shed further light on differential effects of awards by age and performance.

Keywords: Awards, Motivation, Attendance, Field Experiment

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Carly and Robinson, Carly and Gallus, Jana and Lee, Monica and Rogers, Todd, The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Awards (July 24, 2018). HKS Working Paper No. RWP18-020, Available at SSRN: or

Carly Robinson

Harvard University ( email )

13 Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Brown University ( email )

Box 1860
Providence, RI 02912
United States

Jana Gallus

UCLA Anderson ( email )

110 Westwood Plaza
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1481
United States


Monica Lee

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

Todd Rogers (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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