How Candy makes you a better Ornithologist

Imagine the following scenario:

You have recently become a hobby ornithologist and want to prove yourself a worthy part of the community by counting and reporting the migratory birds that pass by your house. But everytime you try to count two overlapping passing flocks you get mixed up, was that a canadian goose now or a grey goose?

Luckily for you psychology researchers Jessica Sänger and Edmund Wascher conducted an ingenious experiment that demonstrates how a little ouside motivation might just help you overcome your struggles.

They invited participants to sit down and judge changes in orientation and luminosity of bars on a monitor. While this might not sound like it has a lot to do with your newfound hobby at first, there is a twist to the experiment: one group of participants  received cash for guessing correctly while the other group didn’t!

Now you can probably already imagine that the group with an extrinsic motivation factor made a loss less mistakes than the other one did.

Interestingly enough the researchers were able to draw some more conclusions by measuring brain activation while performing the task. I’ll cut the technicalities but what their findings mean for your counting is: if you start rewarding yourself for each flock you counted correctly (e.g. with a piece of delicious chocolate) you wont start seeing birds you didn’t see before. But the ones that do catch your eye you’ll be better able to tell apart and most importantly count the correct number of birds.

By H. Engels

Sänger, J., & Wascher, E. (2011). The influence of extrinsic motivation on competition-based selection. Behavioural brain research224(1), 58-64.

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