This paper shows how strategically adding "points" to a situation can dramatically change motivation and outcome. One group of students were given the choice between working for six minutes in exchange for a gallon of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, or working for seven minutes in exchange for a gallon of pistachio Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Given that six minutes of work is more attractive than seven, and vanilla ice cream is generally more desirable than pistachio, about three quarters of students chose the six minute task with vanilla ice cream.
Another separate second group of students were given a similar choice but in this case, the 6 minute task yielded 60 points, and the 7 minute task yielded 100 points. The students were then told they could redeem their points for vanilla ice cream with 50-99 points, but would need the full 100 points to get pistachio.
In this second group of students, with the addition of points, more than half of the students chose the 7 minute work task, and redeemed their points for pistachio ice cream.
The first and second group of students were faced with very similar choices, the only difference being the use of points. When points were added, students changed their preferences towards longer work, and a less desirable flavor of ice cream.
There are three other studies in the paper that find similar effects.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
The authors suggest this effect in part can be explained by an "illusion of advantage." Somehow the points make the less attractive option look more attractive.
This work has a number of obvious real-world implications. Things like frequent flier programs, loyalty programs, and any other places where points are used can get us to do things we might not otherwise do if points weren't involved.