For the past several years, I have read studies about merit pay and “pay-for-performance.” Merit pay has been tried again and again for over a hundred years, and it has never “worked.” I became convinced that merit pay never works because, first, there is no evidence that it has ever worked, and two, the best it can produce is marginally higher test scores but not necessarily better education. Students can be trained like seals to get the right answer by using various strategies, but that doesn’t mean they are better educated.

Typically, studies of merit pay programs show that teachers offered a bonus for higher scores are not likely to produce higher scores than teachers who were not offered a bonus. Teachers are not hiding their best lessons, waiting for someone to offer them a bonus for higher scores. I remember Al Shanker saying, sardonically, “So if you offer teachers a bonus, students will work harder.”

The best book I found on the subject, which spurred other books, was Edward L. Deci’s “Why We Do What We Do.” Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, subsequently inspired the work of Daniel Pink (“Drive”) and Dan Ariely (“Predictably Irrational”). He and Ariely served on the panel of the National Academies of Science that produced a report, “Incentives and Test-Based Acoountability,” which concluded that neither strategy improves education.

Deci conducted a number of studies with human subjects in which to test his theories. He concluded that when you pay people to do what they want to do anyway, you lessen their intrinsic motivation. When you stop paying them, they stop doing what they would have done without the bonus. People are motivated intrinsically by autonomy and authenticity. “Self-motivation,” he wrote, “is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change.”

It is one thing to read books about motivation. It is another to test it in your own life.

About two years ago, I discovered “Words with Friends,” a computer game that you play with friends and strangers online. It took a while, but soon I get the hang of it and found myself enjoying it immensely. I learned new words like “za” and “xu.”

At some point I realized that I could earn digital badges if I reached a certain number of points within a set number of days. I was very motivated to win the badges, even though they had no value whatsoever. I began fervently collecting badges. I started playing with strangers so I could collect more points by playing more often. At one point, I was very close to earning a badge but none of my friends was online. So I sent an email to Anthony Cody and asked him to please start playing so I could earn points. Anthony, by the way, is a master of the game and regularly beats me. He knows more exotic words than anyone else I know.

Then I learned something. When I earned a badge, I lost interest in playing the game until a new badge was offered.

In other words, I proved Deci’s theory. I began with intrinsic motivation, but the badges converted my desire to play into a competitive race to earn a digital badge. When I won the digital badge, or when it was clearly out of reach, I lost interest.

I tried to play without paying attention to the digital badge, but the App kept reminding that I had earned 25% of the points or 50% of the points needed.

There is no way to turn off the badges.

The badges damaged my love of the game. I was no longer playing it for the fun of making words, but for the badges.

Since writing this post, I stopped caring about winning badges. I no longer look at my scores. I am dropping the strangers I play with. Writing the post has helped to break the addiction. I am playing for the fun of the game, not for the prize.

Deci was right.