Increases in rewards promote flexible behavior

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2011 Apr;73(3):938-52. doi: 10.3758/s13414-010-0065-7.


Offering reward for performance can motivate people to perform a task better, but better preparation for one task usually means decreased flexibility to perform different tasks. In six experiments in which reward varied between low and high levels, we found that reward can encourage people to prepare more flexibly for different tasks, but only as it increased from the level on the previous trial. When the same high rewards were offered continuously trial after trial, people were more inclined to simply stick with doing what had worked previously. We demonstrated such enhancements in flexibility in task switching, a difficult visual search task, and an easier priming of pop-out search task, which shows that this effect generalizes from executive tasks to perceptual processes that require relatively little executive control. These findings suggest that relative, transient changes in reward can exert more potent effects on behavioral flexibility than can the absolute amount of reward, whether it consists of money or points in a social competition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention*
  • Discrimination, Psychological*
  • Executive Function*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Male
  • Motivation*
  • Orientation
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Practice, Psychological
  • Problem Solving
  • Reaction Time
  • Reversal Learning*
  • Reward*
  • Transfer, Psychology*
  • Young Adult