The Sawyer effect

In the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom is tasked with painting his aunt’s fence. Tom is bored by the thought of having to do all that work and comes up with a plan to recruit his friends to do it for him willingly. He convinces them that the task is fun, and before he knows it, they beg him to hand over the brush and the paint. Tom used the Sawyer effect to turn the work into play for his friends. But the effect also works the other way around to make play feel like work.

This effect was studied in a 1970’s research study where preschool children were given a ribbon as a reward for drawing. After two weeks of reinforcement of this practice, the kids were less interested in drawing. Instead of being a fun playtime, drawing had become work to them.

In Drive, Daniel Pink describes the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is driven by forces that originate in the person’s own desires and interests, while external rewards or punishments fuel extrinsic motivation. The children from the study above started as being intrinsically motivated. They wanted to draw because they enjoyed it. When the ribbon rewards were introduced, they were given the signal that drawing was an unattractive activity. And within two weeks, they had adopted that message and were less attracted to drawing in general.

What can we learn from this when we’re trying to build workplaces where people can thrive? If work can be turned into play and play can be turned into work, we must try to find and emphasize practices that enable the former. That will help people find their intrinsic motivation for their work and take the pressure off people around them to keep them motivated.¬†