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Hint of Big Payoff Spurs Harder Work

Even Subliminal Promise of Payoff May Motivate Bigger Effort
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 13, 2007 -- People tend to work harder for bigger payoffs, even when those payoffs are only faintly implied, a new study shows.

The study puts a new spin on the "show me the money" motivation theory.

The researchers included Mathias Pessiglione of the Institute of Neurology at University College London and the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris.

They studied 18 healthy volunteers who were 18-39 years old.

Before the experiment began, participants saw three pictures on a computer screen. One picture showed a British pound coin. Another picture showed a British penny. The third image was an abstract graphic design.

Next, the researchers gave participants a hand grip and told them to practice squeezing the grip as hard as possible.

Finally, the participants watched the computer screen as either the pound or penny coin briefly replaced the abstract graphic design.

Subliminal Motivation

The penny or pound coins flickered on the screen for less than a second. Sometimes, participants quickly glimpsed the coin and saw whether it was a pound or a penny.

But usually, the coins were subliminal images, vanishing so quickly that participants didn't notice them.

Participants were told to squeeze the hand grip as hard as possible whenever a coin was on the screen to win a fraction of the money shown on the screen. The harder they squeezed the hand grip, the more money they earned.

Participants squeezed the hand grip hardest when they saw the pound coin, which is worth more than the penny coin. That's not surprising, since money is a well-known motivator.

But even when the coins were subliminal images, participants still squeezed the hand grip harder for the pound coin.

The researchers conclude that subliminal images can motivate harder work.

Participants also got brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the test.

Those brain scans show that a certain brain area, the ventral pallidum, was particularly active during the test.

The ventral pallidum is involved in motivation and reward, note Pessiglione and colleagues.

Their findings appear online in Science Express.

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