Center for Teaching and Learning

April 2, 2020

30 – Subjective Feedback, Competition, Effort and Performance – an Online Experiment

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Anna Lovasz, Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Tacoma


We study how subjective and competitive feedback affects effort and performance, using an online game with randomized treatment. The game involves various shapes moving around the screen, and players clicking on shapes matching the target. We define 8 groups, along two dimensions: (1) players either see a Top 10 leader board or not, and (2) receive no feedback, supportive feedback, praise, or “trash talk.” IVs (feedback) are communicated in pop-up textboxes using phrases and graphics such as: “You can do it!” and “Well done!” We compare the effect of the different IVs on score (performance), clicks (effort), and number of games played (persistence).

We advertise the game using social media ads targeting internet users aged 18-45. Participants click on the ad and play at home, with no financial compensation, capturing real life behavior when facing a new task. The sample includes individuals of various education levels and countries. We use a survey to collect data on demographics (gender, age, country, education), experience, and confidence, and combine this with data on technology (touchscreen, screen size), and outcomes. We analyze the effects by comparing mean outcomes and using OLS regressions with controls, for the overall sample, by gender, and by confidence.

Based on 6500 individuals, we observe significant impacts and differences by gender. Male players are motivated by competition (leader board), achieving higher scores irrespective of the feedback they receive. Female players are less motivated by competition, but perform best when competition is combined with supportive feedback. The findings quantify the fact that every day, low-cost communication elements have a large and heterogenous impact. Differences by gender and confidence highlight the importance of individualized feedback. They also pinpoint a possible factor – the lack of appropriate supportive feedback – that may contribute to gender gaps in certain fields, such as STEM.