If, Then Rewards are only good for simple tasks


"If I exercise every day this week, then I will get a massage."

This statement tells your brain that exercise is undesirable, because if it was desirable you wouldn't need a reward. It also implies that “only a chump” (Daniel Pink) would exercise if there wasn’t a reward involved. Exercise is good. Massages are good. But combining them in a reward system will most likely stunt your progress when it comes to reaching your goals. Relying on if, then rewards puts a cap on our ability to progress, especially when it comes to making complex behavior changes. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Daniel Pink said, “The behavioral science is very, very clear that– give people those kinds of motivators [if, then rewards] for complex tasks, and they will often underperform.” When we are given an if, then reward, we tend to complete just the bare minimum that will allow us to get the reward.

For instance, when a child is told to eat two bites of vegetables before they get dessert, they may “cheat” and take two nibbles of vegetables. Yes, technically they completed the task. But was their perception of vegetables changed? No, in fact the use of an if, then reward may have created an even more negative view of vegetables in the child’s mind.

If, then rewards are common, especially when it comes to health-related behavior changes. While they may provide an initial rush of motivation, they usually end up doing more harm than good when it comes to complex changes. Take a look at your goals and ask yourself if you are using any if, then reward statements. Consider separating the two actions in order to establish value to each. For example, “I will exercise every day because I want to improve my heart health”.  In addition, “I will get a massage at the end of the week to help me destress”. In this way both actions become a positive; neither one becomes undesirable.


Bell, Katherine, and Daniel Pink. “What Motivates Us?” Harvard Business Review, 8 Feb. 2010.