For the love of it

Solid Ground

Last year I gave up a paid part-time job to have more time for volunteer activities. This does not make economic sense, and it did make my life more difficult in certain ways, but it made personal sense. My case is far from unusual. There are millions, perhaps billions of people that engage in volunteerism and there is a large body of literature on it. There is also a large body of literature on motivations, especially interesting is mechanism design and particularly the study of monetary incentives. To me it seems paradoxical that citizen science designers are trying to motivate people into volunteerism by using money.

I had a lively debate with the post doc that wrote a blog post that said “payments for referrals proved to be effective” in the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge. It was highly successful; many people were engaged and in merely 9 hours all the balloons were found. Does this mean that offering prize money is a successful way of motivating people to engage? The myheartmap project suggests otherwise; at the time of writing it’s been running for four weeks and right now only 45 out of 200 golden AED’s have been found, while the geographical scope is just one city, not the entire U.S. as was the case with the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge. Why is it that both projects use prize money to motivate people to participate, yet the number of people participating has been very different? A tentative answer is that the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge attracted people because it captured their imaginations and it stimulated creative communication solutions –the challenge presented may have had greater attraction than the prize money. In the AED case the emphasis on team work is much lower and the challenge is not attracting as much people, even though it has been featured prominently on several well-visited sites. Perhaps one should be careful with concluding that payments are an effective way of motivating people and instead argue the importance of challenge design and community participation.

Now, even when I depart from the community embedded view of a citizen scientist, to a classical economists point of view of a rational, utility maximizing, single unit of analysis, it is still hard for me to become convinced about the usefulness of monetary incentives in citizen science projects. Would the rational person not seek an extra job, or work extra hours if (s)he wanted to earn money, rather than risk the uncertainty of pay-off by investing time in a citizen science project such as If the citizen science project is then organized in such a way that the pay-off is certain, rather than in a competition way, would a rational person not seek to work the least am ount of hours in order to maximize pay-off? Say I earn £20 for importing twenty data-sets and normally I use four hours for this, that would make my hourly wage only £5. If I do the work in two hours then my hourly wage will be £10. There is an economic incentive to cut corners and submit sloppy jobs, meaning the quality of the project suffers. However, if I were not getting paid, I might find myself putting in more and more hours because I have found intrinsic joy in the project or gained skills that I want to develop further. I will probably tell my friends in an enthusiastic way what I am working on, and – depending on the contagiousness of my enthusiasm – my friends might sign up and start volunteering for the project too, creating a snowball effect. It remains to be seen if that would be the same if I were getting paid for the work and treating it as a job; like most people, I tend to spend very little time talking about my work with friends. For the longevity of the field, practitioners must also proceed with caution when handing out monetary incentives; research done by Deci in 1970 showed that people will put less effort in the same task after they have been paid for it and the pay stops, than the people that have never received pay (Shirky, 2010).Despite the old adagium being: turn your passion into your job, my advice to citizen science designers would be: don’t turn people’s passion into jobs.


  1. It’s hard to talk about money and life choices: we all may have too different situations, impossible to compare. Nevertheless, I totally agree : “don’t turn people’s passion into jobs”. It rarely (if never) works. If an incentive must be given, it’s better if it’s not a monetary one. Compensation is fine but money is never a good compensation if you want not to bias the primary motivation for doing a task.

  2. I would be a bit more careful about the issue of non-payment. What happen if someone become very serious contributor to your project, spending many many hours on it. This has clearly happened in Old Weather (according to Simon Tokumine from Vizzuality told us ( and ). In such cases, there is an argument to provide some compensation to the contributors, if they wish to, as they became an effective worker of your project. This should not be automatic, or in an ‘Amazon Mechanical Turk’ style, but it is an issue that is worth considering. Especially when working with very poor communities, payment can become necessary.

  3. I believe your point that payment provides incentives for people to decrease job quality is incorrect. Your analogy only holds if there is an inefficient labour market. If the markets are efficient, cutting corners would lead to losing one’s job, there are always 20 others willing to do your job. Market inefficiencies, such as labour protection laws (i can’t just fire you), recruitment costs (firing you is costly) and information asymmetries (i have no clue if the next guy will do better than you) could make your point valid. However the reason for cutting corners is not the payment for the services, but the market inefficiencies.

    As to Shirky 2010, you realize the same research has been used to justify long run exploitation.

  4. Elles, forget traditional economic theory, we are anything but rational beings! Maybe the question you might want to ask is … can we afford to do what we love? The truth is that most people are struggling to make ends meet. So why not offer an incentive? As Tesco reminds us…’every little helps’! 🙂

  5. @P Battino, I agree that it is hard to talk about money and life choices, as we all have different goals in life and that money biases the primary motivation people have for doing a task. You may find it interesting to know about a research done into community health workers that were either paid or unpaid. It turned out that money made no difference for effective work. People were mostly motivated by social capital; status in the community and in the pleasure of helping others without it being a calculated investment. If you need money to get people to engage, perhaps you need to re-evaluate your project design..

    @MukiH. You write about compensating long term contributors, rather than motivating people to engage in a project by providing monetary incentives which I was reflecting about. Nevertheless I am not convinced about the need of giving a monetary compensation in this case either. Perhaps some people may welcome it, but then again others may find it offensive or belittling of their passion. If they are long-term contributors without payment then they must be already getting something out of the project right? Perhaps it is designed in a way that allows people to learn, or to share, or to be part of a community or be able to influence their lives, which seems far more valuable than money.

    @Mopo. Does it really matter that my analogy only holds in an inefficient labour market? I wonder where a perfect market could exist, except in the minds of economists? Also, it is not Shirky that I am interested in, but it is the research done by Deci (which I have happened to read about in Shirky, who I indeed have some ideological problems with).

    @Diana Mastracci. Yes most people struggle to make ends meet, but everyone needs meaningful and/or leisure activities next to their day-to-day struggle for existence. My parents worked in the slums of Nairobi for years and found that also the poorest of the poor have hobbies. Why not offer an incentive? Because it changes the context of participation. When people are paid for giving their voice in development projects the information they give is mostly that which the practitioner wants to hear, however when you get people to participate without pay they bring a much more critical, constructive attitude to the table.

    Thank you all for your comments!

  6. Hey Elles, if you can read french I’d recommend reading “Petit traité de manipulation à l’usage des honnêtes gens” (Little treaty of manipulation for the usage of good people) from Joule & Beauvois, which is a continuation of the work of Kiesler (The Psychology of Commitment).

    They reach the same conclusion than you in the sense that engagement is not the most efficiently build by using authority, seduction, persuasion or reasoning. They demonstrate that you are better of trying to affect directly the behavior, the acts of the persons, a bit like a scam artists would do.

    The “manipulation” recipe could be summarized with some of the following “tricks”:
    – Imply an internal justification that will produce the desired effect (ex: so the person thinks for example “I’m doing that because…”).
    – Declare the act as free (e.g. an expression of free will)
    – Put the emphasis on the consequence of the act (more consequence more effect).
    – Start with an ask that doesn’t have bad connotation (i.e. foot in the door)
    – Choose an act with maximum costs (the maximum cost before refusal).
    – Make the act as visible as possible to other people/groups
    – Make it public and underline the explicitness of the act significance (cf. which alue, group, etc.)
    – Make it “difficult” to cancel or stop (no turning back)
    – Do not hesitate to ask to (re)do the task several times (cf. build an habbit)
    – Avoid external justification (no threat, nor gifts, i.e. avoid carrot / stick)

    This tricks were used in order to help workers wear safety gears, smokers to stop cigaret, youth to use condoms, etc. You don’t have to use all the tricks, in fact you should use the minumum required (as in economy of means).

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