How recognition affects motivation

What is the effect of praise, of saying “Well done” to somebody? This new study shows the possible effects:


  • An experiment on recognition carried out among university students.
  • In randomly chosen tutorial groups, students scoring within the top 30% of their group on the first midterm test were publicly recognized.
  • No effect of recognition on the recipients’ performance on the second midterm.
  • Positive effect on non-recipients’ performance, local to those attending enough tutorials and being not too far off the cut-off grade.
  • Results consistent with conformity to group performance norm.


From the press release:

The researchers conducted an experiment with a cohort of more than 300 first-year students in the Netherlands who attended microeconomics tutorials in 15 pre-selected and stable groups. The top 30% students in 8 randomly chosen groups were unexpectedly praised for their performance on the first of the two midterm exams in front of their peers. Compared to similarly good students in the “control” groups, where no such recognition was given, they did no better on the second midterm. However, and, again, compared to their likes in the control groups, the students whose grade fell just a little below the top 30% of their group improved their second midterm grade significantly.

Nick Zubanov sees these findings as evidence for conformity to the performance norm: “Human behaviour is influenced by the individual’s personal understanding of the norm. This applies for academia as well as business environments. Student performance is influenced not only by personal benefits, such as grades or passing an exam, but also by the existing performance norms.” The verbal recognition of performance serves here as an instrument by which the norm is communicated. If an individual is praised, chances are he or she fulfils the performance norm. On the other hand, those not recognised will learn that they may have been too optimistic about fulfilling the norm and will hence work harder. There are of course other, more powerful, reasons why people work or study hard, but the very existence of these reasons makes Hoogveld and Zubanov’s findings all the more remarkable. One lesson to learn from their study is that a simple “well done” said in the right way makes some people feel better and others work harder.

Abstract of the study:

We study the effect of unannounced recognition on performance with a field experiment involving first-year Dutch university students attending tutorials as part of a compulsory course. Our treatment, given in randomly selected tutorial groups, was to publicly recognize students who scored within the top 30% of their respective group on the first of the two midterm exams. The overall treatment effect on the second midterm grade is 0.03s   (s= grade standard deviation) for the recipients of recognition, and 0.15s for the non-recipients, both statistically insignificant. The effect for the non-recipients increases with class attendance (itself unaffected by our treatment) and proximity to the cutoff grade for recognition, reaching a significant 0.55s for the 23% of the non-recipients who attended at least 12 out of 13 classes and were within the first quartile of the distance to cutoff. We argue that conformity to performance norm is among the forces shaping the effects we observe.

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