How the undermining effect impacts your writing process.
“For the author, the reward is not having a best-selling book. The reward is the act of writing. The reward is every moment that you battle to string words together and craft a story that takes on a life of its own.” — James Clear
I’ve always struggled to reward myself for daily writing.
At first, I didn’t understand how to create rewards. Chocolate bars were my go-to treat.
After listening to Dr. Rosemarie Roberts (with the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity), I discovered treats should not involve any work — only pleasure.
So, I expanded my reward repertoire to baths, walks, fiction reading, or TV.
But I experienced zero impact on my writing resistance or output.
After finishing writing, I experience relief, peace, and accomplishment. That’s my reward. I’ll treat myself afterward, but not because I finished writing.
Rewards and the “undermining effect ”
I’m not alone in my rewards conundrum.
Psychologists Murayama, Matsumoto, Izuma & Matsumoto, among others, have studied the counterintuitive phenomenon of “the undermining effect.”
“But research in social psychology has also found that extrinsic rewards can sometimes undermine intrinsic motivation when people are engaged in an interesting task. This phenomenon . . . . suggests that extrinsic rewards are not always beneficial for learning.”
Social psychologists Murayama, Matsumoto, Izuma & Matsumoto used a game experiment to test the “undermining effect.” The researchers told one group they’d receive rewards for doing well (money) and the other nothing about a reward. Their neuroimaging technique showed “that participants in the reward group showed less voluntary engagement in the task than those in the control group, indicating that their intrinsic motivation for the task was undermined by the introduction of extrinsic rewards.”
One recent study calls this effect into question, but only about timing. Wooley and Fishbach (2018) found support for their hypothesis about coupling activities and rewards: “this research compared immediate versus delayed rewards, predicting that more immediate rewards increase intrinsic motivation by creating a perceptual fusion between the activity and its goal (i.e., the reward).”
The scientists used chocolate in their experiment, confirming I’m not the only one who has difficulty imagining unusual rewards.
Though I’ll never become bored by chocolate, might these observed effects might wear off over time? What happens when the lab experiment is applied to a daily routine?
How the undermining effect impacts writing
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ― Maya Angelou
If your writing is fun, solves a puzzle, involves creative play, or scratches the itch of writing, then giving yourself an external reward may undermine your engagement with writing tomorrow.
This might be why hobby writers lose momentum and joy when they become full-time authors. The reward for completing your writing becomes extrinsic (paying the bills) rather than intrinsic (being lost in a story), therefore undermining your goal of writing more.
But what if my writing task is unpleasant or boring?
Here’s where rewards can be useful, though I urge caution. If your writing task is, distressing or boring, then you need not worry about the undermining effect. You need all your mental, emotional, and physical resources just to get your butt in the chair and start writing. Whatever it takes!
But given the enormous cognitive and emotional load of these writing tasks, should you not give yourself a reward if you cannot stomach it today?
For example, if you plan to write about the racist/sexist U.S. “welfare” system, your brain and body need to be in top condition so you can fly through the first draft. If you write when you’re drained, then it may be counterproductive. Not only will most of your words be useless, but you may have even more writing resistance the next time you put your fingers on the keyboard.
Beyond undermining effects
“As each day comes to a close, take a moment to thank the universe for all the things that went well and affirm that everything in your life is working for your highest good. I insist on a treat every day during crunch time because I deserve it. So do you!” — Kerry Ann Rockquemore
The problem of writing rewards goes deeper.
Let’s say you plan to write 1000 words. You slept 4 hours last night, so writing 500 words is a minor miracle. Or, you might have a chronic illness, like I do. Therefore, you can’t predict whether you can write anything at all. Writing 500 words is impressive under these circumstances.
But you didn’t accomplish your goal. And yet, you wrote.
Should you reward yourself?
Why are you spending precious mental energy asking this question every day?
If you have work emergencies (and are super stressed), should you not give yourself a reward? You need chocolate or a bath.
So you’re a double loser because you didn’t write, and you didn’t get a reward.
What’s the flip-side of a reward? It’s the withholding of the reward, which sounds like punishment.
I don’t need to feel worse about my writing, do you?
When I finish a writing sprint, that is my reward.
I won! Time to rest.
If I didn’t spend an hour writing or hit 1000 words, then that’s fine, too. I’ll come back tomorrow.
Isn’t this a kinder approach?
“At the end of Slaughterhouse-Five … I had a shutting-off feeling … that I had done what I was supposed to do and everything was OK.” — Kurt Vonnegut
In my experience, writing rewards only work for reaching a milestone, such as finishing a book manuscript. Then you give yourself a BIG reward, like a trip somewhere, or a new pair of shoes. Whatever you want.
You may disagree. You may need positive reinforcement every day.
But doesn’t accomplishing something — or being kind to yourself if you don’t feel well — a reward in itself?
The reason milestone rewards work is that you’ll eventually get an outcome, but you’re not depriving yourself in the meantime.
Because I try to write every day. And that’s enough.
For steadfast reward believers
If you’re not convinced consider Agatha Christie’s advice: “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
Agatha Christie was right, according to Creswell, Bursley, and Satpute’s (2013) experiment: “participants did not have any awareness that their brains were still working on the decision problem while they were engaged in an unrelated task.”
We forget our unconscious brains are always working.
Since our brains never shut off, then you should reward your brain every day. Not just for helping you put words on the screen.
So how should you approach rewards?
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” — Douglas Adams
Distressing or boring writing tasks:
If writing rewards motivate you, do it. But be careful not to punish yourself for not meeting your goals, especially because we can underestimate how long these writing tasks take.
Fun, engaging, or creative, writing tasks:
Try writing without rewards. Forget external realities. Give yourself a big reward for finishing the manuscript, but not for your everyday writing practice. You already feel great because you finished writing, and you had a good time!
If you stop searching for writing rewards and focus on daily joy and well-being, that might be the best reward of all.
Dr. Rose Ernst was chair and associate professor of political science until she decided to pursue writing and editing full time. She is now an academic editor and consultant who loves to support scholars in sharing their brilliance with the world. Find her at roseernst.net. Sign up for her email list here.
A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from author.
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