Peer Production on the Crypto Commons

Version 1.0

Toward a Commons Based Economy

Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Rewards

One concept from the Psychological literature relevant here is that of intrinsic motivation, which means being motivated by some inherent interest in the task and the satisfaction its completion will bring. Extrinsic motivation means being motivated by some external and separable outcome (e.g. getting paid). The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation has been demonstrated experimentally (Deci, 19721) by asking participants to engage in some task like solving puzzles and controlling whether they receive an external reward (they are paid to puzzle) or not. Following the completion of the task, the participant is then ostensibly left to their own devices in the same environment, and observed to see if they continue with the task. Participants who were not rewarded to complete the task tend to spend more time doing it in the subsequent free choice period. This has been interpreted to mean that the extrinsic reward (payment) displaces the intrinsic motivation participants would otherwise have felt (enjoying the puzzles). People who are paid to puzzle feel like they are puzzling because they are getting paid, when the payments stop so does the puzzling.

This experimental paradigm has been used to study how different kinds of extrinsic rewards interact with intrinsic motivation. In a comprehensive meta-analysis, Deci & Ryan (1999) 2 reported that rewards which are engagement-contingent (require participation), completion-contingent and performance-contingent all significantly undermined free-choice intrinsic motivation.

As predicted, engagement-contingent, completion-contingent, and performance-contingent rewards significantly undermined free-choice intrinsic motivation (d = -0.40, -0.36, and -0.28, respectively), as did all rewards, all tangible rewards, and all expected rewards. Engagement-contingent and completion contingent rewards also significantly undermined self-reported interest (d = -0.15, and —0.17), as did all tangible rewards and all expected rewards. Positive feedback enhanced both free-choice behavior (d = 0.33) and self-reported interest (d = 0.31) the factors associated with diminishing intrinsic motivation.

It is interesting to note that the core aspects of many jobs are significant detractors for intrinsic motivation. In order of decreasing severity:

  • Show up to work at the required time (engagement-contingent)
  • Do your work as expected (completion-contingent)
  • Do your work well (performance-contingent)

In general, previous research has found that the undermining effect of external incentives is especially powerful for monetary compensations that are perceived to be controlling. The effects are larger for monetary rather than symbolic incentives and for expected rather than unexpected incentives.

Rewards which are mechanistic and entirely predictable detract from intrinsic motivation, but unexpected rewards do not. I interpret this to imply that the more clearly an actor associates their actions with gaining a specific reward the more it dampens their intrinsic motivation.

Positive feedback enhances intrinsic motivation, and is the only form of extrinsic reward that has been reliably demonstrated to do so.

Intrinsic motivation features heavily within FOSS. The desire to make something useful and offer it to all is the origin of this mode of production, and how most people start contributing to CBPP more broadly.

Lakhani & Wolf (2005)4 surveyed 684 developers in 287 FOSS projects and found that:

…the enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on the project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver. We also find that user need, intellectual stimulation derived from writing code, and improving programming skills are top motivators for project participation.

They also reported that around 40% of contributors were paid to participate in FOSS projects.

Roberts et al., 20063 have investigated a number of hypotheses drawn from the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation literature, in an excellent study that looked at contributions to 3 Apache (FOSS) projects, using both archival data about contributions to the code and surveying 288 contributors. They found little evidence of extrinsic rewards crowding out intrinsic motivation, but they did find relationships whereby status motivations enhanced intrinsic motivation, and being paid to contribute enhanced status motivations. There was no relationship between intrinsic motivation and level of contribution, leading the authors to suggest that some degree of extrinsic motivation (i.e. being paid) may boost participation by giving contributors a reason to work on tasks which were not the most appealing but had high value for the project.

Contributors who were motivated by use-value (i.e. they were adding a feature they wanted to use, or fixing a bug that was causing them trouble) tended to have lower levels of contribution. The researchers also found that recognition for past performance through rankings boosted motivation, and that this was part of a functioning meritocracy within the Apache projects.

One of the weaknesses of this study was that it focused exclusively on the Apache community, and it is not clear how far the results generalize beyond Apache to other FOSS projects. It seems likely that the details of how each project is organized and how paid contributors interact with their employers matter a great deal.

In my opinion, intrinsically motivated participants are desirable, especially in the blockchain space - but there are limits on purely intrinsic motivation. Some people (who need to earn an income for their work) are excluded, and the overall level of contributions can be enhanced with well deployed extrinsic rewards like payment and recognition.


  1. Deci, E. L. (1972). The effects of contingent and noncontingent rewards and controls on intrinsic motivation. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 8(2), 217–229. [return]
  2. Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627–668. [return]
  3. Roberts, J. A., Hann, I.-H., & Slaughter, S. A. (2006). Understanding the Motivations, Participation, and Performance of Open Source Software Developers: A Longitudinal Study of the Apache Projects. Management Science, 52(7), 984–999. [return]
  4. Lakhani, K. R., & Wolf, R. G. (2003). Why Hackers Do What They Do: Understanding Motivation and Effort in Free/Open Source Software Projects (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 443040). Social Science Research Network. [return]
Last updated on 17 Aug 2019
Published on 17 Aug 2019
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