The Demotivating Effect of Retrospective Awards

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Does school attendance awards [or reward assemblies] have a positive or negative impact?

Published in the excellent Institute for Effective Education newsletter, The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Retrospective Awards (Robinson, Gallus, Lee and Rogers; July 2018) is a working research paper published by Harvard Kennedy School.


Survey studies provide evidence suggesting that receiving retrospective awards may demotivate the behavior being awarded by inadvertently signaling:

  • (a) that recipients have performed the behavior more than their peers have, and
  • (b) that recipients have performed the behavior to a greater degree than was organisationally expected.


A working paper by Carly Robinson and colleagues, published by the Harvard Kennedy School, reports on an experiment to measure the impact of attendance rewards on pupils. The trial included 15,629 sixth to twelfth-grade pupils (Year 7-13) from 14 school districts in California.

It is common for organizations to offer awards to motivate individual behavior, yet few empirical studies evaluate their effectiveness in the field. A school leaders survey shows that awards for attendance are common and that the organisational leaders who offer these awards are unaware of their potential demotivating impact.

Types of Reward

  • Material e.g. certificate or monetary
  • Symbolic e.g. trophy
  • Based on performance when compared to peers
  • Based on relative performance where the reference point is the individual’s own past behaviour
  • Prospectively e.g. stipulated in advance or,
  • Retrospectively e.g. recognition for past behaviour


Prospective awards are defined by school leaders and their expectations in advance and aspirants can work towards fulfilling them in order to attain the award.

These awards are closely in line with the traditional economic focus on incentives, with the exception that the promise of monetary pay is replaced by a non-monetary; or based on workers’ performance compared to that of peers (e.g., rank-order tournaments – Lazear and Rosen 1981).

Surprise rewards have more recently received greater attention thanks to the advent of behavioural research, and specifically one of its most incentive.

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Retrospective awards may be motivating because people are often unsure about their own ability and performance given the context they are in (e.g., in comparison to others’ performance, the manager’s or institution’s norms and goals). Receiving an award allows the recipients to make inferences about their performance and recalibrate beliefs about their behavior as well as contextual factors such as the giver’s beliefs and expectations (Gallus & Frey, 2017).

Emerging literature on awards, most attention has previously been paid to prospective, announced awards.

The authors are only aware of one prior study that tests both prospective and retrospective awards within the same context – Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973).

What did the research suggest?

All the pupils had previously had perfect attendance in at least one month in the autumn. The pupils were randomly allocated to one of three groups:

  1. “Prospective Award” pupils received a letter telling them they would receive a certificate if they achieved perfect attendance in February (the following month).
  2. “Retrospective Award” pupils received a letter and certificate telling them they had earned an award for perfect attendance during one month in the autumn term.
  3. Control pupils received no communication.


The researchers collected data on the pupils’’ attendance in the following month (February). They found:

  1. There was no impact of offering the prospective reward on subsequent attendance.
  2. They also found that offering the retrospective award resulted in students attending less school in February.
  3. Absences among this group increased by 8% (an average of 0.06 days per pupil).

The researchers suggest that the retrospective awards may have sent unintended signals to the pupils, telling them that they were performing better than the descriptive social norm of their peers, and exceeding the institutional expectations for the awarded behaviour.

One study on absenteeism in the workplace found that personal recognition for good attendance significantly decreased employee absenteeism (Markham et al., 2002). Another study found that an attendance award had short-term positive effects on low-attending employees and crowded out the internal motivation of those employees (Gubler, Larkin, & Pierce, 2016).

3 thoughts on “The Demotivating Effect of Retrospective Awards

  1. It’s quite surprising to read this because rewards are known to be motivating. But perhaps the contrary happens because the recipient has become complacent. What matters is that students perform their best because it will boost their performance and knowledge. An award ought to be an affirmation or recognition of this, which recipients should appreciate. Perhaps more encouragement is needed from the teachers and parents. The article is an engaging read, nonetheless!

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