There are some things in this world that just seem obvious: you'll get fat if you eat too much junk, reading makes you smarter, and money is a great motivator, for instance. But according to science, one of these blindingly simple seeming ideas is actually untrue.

And nope, sorry non-readers, there isn't some secret study that shows watching Netflix beats books for boosting brain power. There is, however, a new study that suggests if you believe you can just throw money at people to increase their motivation you're far from alone, but you're also dead wrong.

The motivation question 62.5 percent of people get wrong

The new research, led by British psychologist Kou Murayama, asked volunteers to guess how paying participants would affect their willingness to participate in a simple game. If you gave study subjects a bit of cash, would they be more likely to play again?

On the surface, this doesn't sound like a hard question. All things being equal, wouldn't people be more willing to undertake a task when they're paid for it?

In line with this common sense thinking, a full 62.5 percent of study participants predicted that paying people would make them more likely to play the researchers' game for a second time. Only there's a slight hitch. When the psychologists actually tested the effects of monetary rewards on people's choices, the exact opposite happened. When they were paid, people were actually less likely to opt to play again.

In short, way more than half of people believe a total myth about motivation. And perhaps even more troubling is the fact that those who were most confident in their prediction, were more likely to be wrong.

That mistake might cause some blushes among volunteers in a psychology study, but it has significant real-world consequence, especially for bosses. "Society has a deep-rooted misunderstanding of how motivation works, and employers are repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot with the frequent use of rewards to encourage certain behaviors or increase effort," Murayama commented.

What beats a bribe?

So what should managers be doing instead of dangling cash in front of employers? The key to answering this question is understanding why people are often less motivated when they're asked to do something for money.

According to the researchers, cash rewards can actually cause people to subconsciously feel that their autonomy is being threatened. In other words, bonus schemes can feel bullying or belittling. And monetary rewards can also distract people from the intrinsic value of a task. That's why the researchers also note that offering kids treats in exchange for good behavior can backfire. For these reasons, supporting people's intrinsic motivation often beats trying to bribe them into performing.

Of course, what goes on in a psychology lab isn't a perfect analogy for what goes on in, say, an investment bank, and there's no doubt that in some situations the promise of a healthy monetary reward can provide a short-term kick in the pants. But this new study highlights the limits of that thinking, and how many people remain complete oblivious to the trade-offs involved in offering cash incentives.

Published on: Jan 30, 2017