Government Gives $179,784 to Study What Motivates Workers: Love or Money?

August 20, 2013 - 11:42 AM
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(National Science Foudation)

( – The National Science Foundation has awarded a $179,784 grant to “experimental economists” who will study what drives one’s work incentive – personal gain and employer profit or contributing to causes that help the “needy.”

“Our focus is on the less-examined issue of motivation within institutions that do not have profit as their primary goal – that is, organizations with a cause,” Angelo de Oliveira, one of the principal investigators of the study, told

De Oliveira said that she and her colleagues are particularly interested in the “care sector” of the U.S. workforce.

“This sector includes workers in any profession where caring for others plays a role, such as heath workers (nurses, home health care providers, physical therapists), teachers and related professions, etc. Individuals in this sector are working to provide care for needy members of their and others’ families,” said De Oliveira, who is an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “They not only help elderly and disabled individuals who need their aid, but also support those recipients’ families.”

“Understanding how individuals with this dual purpose –love and money—respond to both monetary and non-monetary incentives will help design work environments that enhance worker motivation, motivate the employees to take better care of their charges, and give the families of the recipient more peace of mind,” De Oliveira said.

The grant, entitled “Collaborative Research: It’s Not (Just) About the Money,” was awarded through the Social and Economic Sciences arm of the NSF and is a continuing grant that was awarded on Sept. 11, 2012 and continues until March 31, 2014.

“In this research project, the PIs [principal investigators] will conduct laboratory experiments that examine the desire to “do good” as an intrinsic motive for working,” the grant abstract stated. “The experiments involve a new incentivized game setting where worker effort, instead of benefitting an employer’s profit, instead benefits a third party: a needy individual, a group of such individuals, or a public good.”

The project will also “test the effects of incentive contracts (requests, rewards, and punishment) on productivity in these settings, and assess the potential for short-run and long-run crowding out of intrinsic motivation by extrinsic rewards,” the abstract states.

When asked how the researchers define “doing good,” De Oliveira said it means helping others.

“For this study, our definition of ‘doing good’ specifically refers to helping another participant within the experiment who is in need through no fault of their own, helping a group of people, or helping a nonprofit or charitable organization,” De Oliveira said. also asked where an individual’s desire to help himself and his family fits into the experiment.

“We of course believe that individuals work to benefit themselves and their families,” De Oliveira said. “However, most of the economics literature assumes that the only thing workers care about is making money.

“We are trying to extend the analysis to situations where people care about making money (for their own benefit or to provide for their families) as well as helping others,” De Oliveira said.

But how will this work benefit the American taxpayer, which foots the bill for all NSF grants?

“Taxpayers are all impacted to some degree by institutions which help third parties, including government servants, non-profits, care providers, and teachers among many others,” De Oliveira said. “Finding ways to increase the efficiency of these workers while recognizing, respecting, and promoting the valuable public services they provide is valuable for all of us.”

The sponsor of the grant is Texas A&M University.