Enter Ariely. Through a variety of lab experiments, Ariely makes the conclusion that "using money to motivate people can be a double-edged sword. For tasks that require cognitive ability low to moderate performance-based incentives can help. But when the incentive level is very high, it can command too much attention and thereby distract the person's mind with thoughts about the reward. This can create stress and ultimately reduce the level of performance."
The two explanations seem to be correlated. If promises of high performance based incentives cause stress, then logic would tell us that cortisol release would permeate these situations. High cortisol levels inhibit oxytocin and make us less able to trust others and empathize with them. High stress also inhibits our ability to perform well. In a nutshell, the argument could be made that high performance based incentives kill performance and poison positive workplace climates.
I wonder what this conclusion means for our classrooms. I wonder if our grading schematics and evaluation methods could be construed as high performance based incentives and could inadvertently be killing student performance and poisoning classroom atmosphere. This is not a profound conclusion for those of us who have thought seriously about our student evaluation methods. However, I think that the arguments presented by these two authors may provide new evidence for those of us who have concern about the demotivating aspects of traditional methods of evaluations. Of course, there is a big difference (perhaps) between monetary incentive and the grade motivators that we dole out. However, I wonder if the two are more alike for than we think considering the high stakes of achieving good grades in our society.
Ariely, Dan. The upside of irrationality: the unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home. New York: Harper, 2010.
Sinek, Simon. Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Portfolio, 2009.