The Pitfalls of a High Bonus

One day, a millionaire and a young golfer happened to meet on the green. The golfer had fallen into despair after repeatedly failing to qualify for the PGA. The millionaire listened and suddenly pulled $1000 out of his wallet, then threw the golf ball about three feet from the hole, saying, “If you can putt that ball into the hole, I’ll give you $1000.”

The golfer easily made the shot. The millionaire made the same offer, but with $10,000, and the golfer, now slightly nervous, made the putt again. Then the millionaire raised the reward to $100,000.

Hearing the sum, the golfer’s legs began to tremble and his wrists weakened. The three feet between the ball and hole suddenly felt like thirty. He ended up missing the hole. The millionaire watched, then clapped the golfer’s shoulder and said, “Actually, you’re skilled enough to make that putt. But the key to victory is being able to use that talent at decisive moments.”

Dan Ariely et al. did an experiment to discover whether people’s performance improved along with the size of the reward.

The experiment was conducted in a village in the Indian countryside. Participants were randomly divided into low, mid, and high levels and played 6 games including puzzles, matching color sequences, and labyrinths. The rules were simple: winning one game meant a reward of 4 rupees at the low level, 40 rupees at the mid level, and 400 rupees at the high level. The average monthly salary in India at the time was 500 rupees. If a high level participant won every game, he or she would win almost 5 months’ salary at once (2400 rupees).

The results of this experiment showed that participants at the highest level performed remarkably worse than the other groups, with three times as many low or mid level participants receiving scores of “excellent” or “very good” compared to those at the highest level. This outcome was especially noticeable in games requiring recognition skills. The researchers concluded, “Across multiple tasks (with one important exception), higher monetary incentives led to worse performance.”

This gives us an indication of how top Olympic athletes blow their chances at gold medals or frequently lose games with huge payoffs just waiting for them. Suh Yoon suggests that the problem lies not in the size of the reward, but in the way we respond to it.

She explains why things we dearly desire don’t come to pass as follows: “Our fears grow the more ardently we want something. These feelings increase our anxiety and hinder our focus. If you want something too much, it won’t happen.”

Do we therefore need to give up on large bonuses? We certainly don’t. If you listen to Suh Yoon’s advice and change only your state of mind, you can get what you want. She elaborates:

“I recommend you first reflect on your attitude toward your goal. Excessive yearning and idealization of your goal can easily lead to anxiety and fear. These feelings push away good fortune and replace it with bad luck, ultimately ruining your dreams. Put aside your desperate expectations and try to feel at ease and comfortable about your goal.

It’s when people are relaxed and comfortable that they can be themselves and use their capabilities to their utmost. Achieving goals naturally becomes easier at these times. If, on the other hand, you are caught up in a battle with yourself, your life will be an ongoing war and the road to your dream can only be rugged and difficult.”