What motivates you? Do you
think you know? For a long time, everyone thought motivation was obvious.
Just like dogs, according to
the popular belief, people want to gain rewards and avoid punishment, and they
will work harder if rewarded or
if threatened with punishment. Do you
think that’s how human beings are motivated? Do you think it’s how dogs and
horses or monkeys or rats are motivated?
Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The
Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
draws on a wealth of experimental research which points in a very different
direction, and what researchers in motivation have been putting together isn’t
esoteric knowledge. It pertains to our everyday world and is practical
knowledge in a very immediate sense, because it has to do with how we raise and
educate children, how we treat employees, coworkers and friends--even how we
nurture successful behavior in ourselves.
Harry F. Harlow,
psychologist, stumbled by accident in the 1940s on a phenomenon he identified
as a third biological drive. Besides basic drives urging them toward food and
sex, it seemed that monkeys were also motivated by a challenge: they liked to
solve puzzles even without rewards. “The joy of the task was it own reward,” as
Pink puts it. The reward was intrinsic to the activity. The finding surprised
Harlow. What followed, however, was so surprising and went so strongly against
entrenched belief that no one would even touch it. The radical finding was that
when food rewards were introduced into the experiment, the monkeys’
performances went downhill. They made more mistakes and did not solve the
puzzles as often.
(Think about the usual
rationale for inflated CEO salaries and the performance of overpaid banking and
Not until almost 1970 did
another researcher, Edward Deci, pick up the dropped ball and design further
experiments in motivation and rewards.
In an echo of what
Harlow discovered two decades earlier, Deci revealed that human motivation
seemed to operate by laws that ran counter to what most scientists and citizens
believed. From the office to the playing field, we knew what got people going.
Rewards—esp;ecially cold, hard cash—intensified interest and enhanced
performance. What Deci found ... was almost the opposite. “When money is used
as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest....”
Rewards can deliver a short-term boost—just as jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few
more hours. But the effect wears off—and, worse, can reduce a person’s
long-term motivation to continue the project. [My emphases added.]
There’s more to the story.
Only contingent extrinsic rewards
eroded motivation—that is, rewards given on an if-then basis, i.e., “If you do
x, you will receive y.” What seems to go on in such cases is that what was
pleasure becomes paid work. An unexpected reward does not have the same
effect. If an unannounced reward is
routinely given afterward, however, it becomes expected and then functions like
any contingent extrinsic reward, lowering interest and performance.
The lesson to be learned here
is not that extrinsic rewards are always bad. For routine, boring, repetitive
tasks, if presented in the right way (acknowledging that the task is boring but
making clear that it is necessary and giving workers the latitude to complete
the task in their own way), they can be effective. For any kind of creative
work, however, an extrinsic reward scheme is a deadly recipe. Moreover, giving
employees “clear goals” in the form of minimum production levels to be met, for
example, or demands for compulsive time-keeping, guarantee low performance,
because when extrinsic rewards are the "...only destination
that matters...[,] some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it
means taking the low road."
Autonomy, mastery and
purpose: these are intrinsic
motivators in both personal and professional life. Children early in life show
concern for purpose, as well as with autonomy and mastery. The last section of
Pink’s book includes a “toolkit” for motivating yourself and others.
I think about classrooms I’ve
been in, both in a student chair and at the front of the room; about jobs I’ve
had and which ones felt good and which were living nightmares; and about this
odd, financially marginal life I’ve put together here in Up North. My personal
experience is confirmation of everything in this book.
If you want to hear this straight from the horse's mouth, click here
Are you still skeptical? Why
do so many retired people work so hard at volunteering and hobbies? What
motivates armies of unpaid writers to devote themselves to their blogs? What
will you be doing today—and why? As the new year approaches,
many of us are forming resolutions. What are those all about?
The research does not say
that money doesn’t matter. It does. We all need to make a living. But we also
need satisfactions that money can’t buy, and woe to anyone who offers to buy
the best that’s in us. Behaviorism is (or should be)
dead! Long live self-determining individuals!