The impact of motivation on learning and social interaction

One of the research topics being pursued by the Royal Holloway Autism Research group involves investigating the effects of reward and motivation on learning and social interaction. Behaviours and decisions are driven by rewards. More specifically, the difference between the size of the reward and the amount of effort required (often referred to as cost-benefit). If we imagine two students, one of whom just got paid and has a healthy bank balance whilst the other is almost out of money. If I gave both of them a list of 20 words and told them they would win £1 for each word they correctly remembered, the poorer student may remember more words than the richer student. However, does this reflect a difference in their ability to learn or does this reflect a difference in motivation? The wealthy student doesn’t need money so the effort required to learn the list of words may not be worthwhile, whereas the poorer student needs the money and may perform better because they’re more motivated. Again, this doesn’t mean that the poorer student learns better than the richer student, rather that the poorer student is more motivated. This same analogy can be applied to a large body of laboratory research investigating social cognition and social rewards with Autistic individuals. In fact, a number of recent studies are finding that Autistic individuals perform on par with neurotypical controls when motivational factors are matched in both groups. Here, we will be using neuroeconomic games to investigate motivational differences, and the impact this has on different aspects of learning and decision making.


  • Lehner, R., Balsters, J., Herger, A., Hare, T. A., & Wenderoth, N. (2016). Monetary, Food, and Social Rewards Induce Similar Pavlovian-to-Instrumental Transfer Effects. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10, 247.
  • Delmonte, S., Balsters, J., McGrath, J., Fitzgerald, J., Brennan, S., Fagan, A. J., & Gallagher, L. (2012). Social and monetary reward processing in autism spectrum disorders. Molecular Autism, 3(1), 7.