Being effective in teams

Experimenting with Intrinsic Motivation

hey there!

For years I had this notion that it must be much more complex to Intrinsically motivate people than to motivate them externally. That it should be easier to decrease the internalization of their motivation, than to increase it. I could not have been more wrong…

Mostly because there have been many experiments like the candle problem. Problems that required creative heuristic thinking to be solved and where participants become driven by external motivation (simply by adding a monetary reward).

For those that are unfamiliar with the candle problem:


The challenge is: how to fix and light a candle on a wall (a cork board) in a way so the candle wax won’t drip onto the table below.

These experiments show how easily participants can be manipulated by lowering their internalization, making them less effective in solving complex puzzles.

Several months ago I conducted experiments with the same idea using a dutch game called ‘black stories’, where participants have to think creatively to find the solution. In this case, to solve a murder. I came to the same conclusions as most of the candle problem experiments, but at least I discovered them myself. I learned for myself instead of from a book.

A few weeks ago I conducted a new experiment (still using black stories). But instead of playing with a focus group and a control group, I decided to go for one group and play with the rules to see what happens within the group.

Basically I started out playing the game the way it is meant to be played. But as players made too much progress – I changed the rules.

Individual game chips
My main addition were game chips (= external stimuli). Players could win chips by asking the right questions or lose chips by asking stupid questions. The game master could decide which questions were right and which were stupid (I picked someone random as game master).

An important insight was not only the speed in which questions were asked, but also the type of questions. The game started active, with questions being asked every second. After the introduction of game chips, the players started asking ‘safe’ questions. Questions that would rarely be considered stupid, but uncovered almost no clues at all. It could take 30 seconds between the questions that were asked. You can imagine that it took very long for the game to be completed this way (and the plan was to timebox these sessions for 10 minutes :D).

Group game chips
Another fun alteration was having game chips for the ‘group’. Game chips were now shared. All of a sudden, the players started thinking more collaboratively. Listening to each other, but still asking ‘safe’ questions. Discussions were born.

It was incredibly fun to see what these changes did to the group behavior. Everyone was affected by these game changers and it had enormous impact on the speed in which the game was played – and completed. As I put more focus on the game chips, less relevant questions were asked and it took longer to complete the game.

After evaluating one of the sessions I got feedback that it was normal for the game to start active and slowly lose speed, because the first relevant questions are the easiest to think of.

The challenge
So I felt an upcoming challenge that I had to take. I decided to spice things up for the last group. Before the game started I gave every player a few game chips and explained the ‘rules’, or actually ‘my screwed up rules’.

After 5 minutes, not a single relevant question was asked.

Then I intervened. I took away all the game chips and explained it was free for all once again.

Now every player was firing away relevant questions. Not a second was wasted. It took them only a few minutes to finish the game this time.

When playing a game that requires creative thinking, triggering Intrinsic Motivation is JUST AS EASY as triggering External Motivation.

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