Insight of the Week
June 23, 2023

Motivate Behavior Using Work-to-Unlock Rewards

A new study found that work-to-unlock rewards are highly motivating. What are they? And how do they work?


Researchers analyzed the flossing behavior of 1,700 people.

They tested different rewards:

  • Work-to-Receive. Participants received $0.24 each day they flossed.
  • Work-to-Unlock. Participants were required to floss for 3 days. Then they received $0.32 each day they flossed.

In both rewards, participants could receive $2.88 across 12 days. But they flossed more frequently when they needed to unlock the rewards (Sharif & Woolley, 2022).

In a follow-up study, researchers tested the same incremental amount: Both conditions would receive $0.02 for every 30-second workout they completed. But some participants needed to complete 4 workouts to start receiving the rewards. Even though these participants were paid less in total, they exercised more often.

Why Do These Rewards Work?

  1. Implicit Goal. Work-to-unlock rewards create a nearby goal that people strive to attain.
  2. Feeling Behind. Once people reach this goal, they feel behind — as if they're just starting now.
  3. Sunk Cost. If people give up, they'll be wasting the time and effort they spent to unlock the reward mechanism.

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