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Monday, December 26, 2011


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 finance CEOs.)

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! 


Daniel Pink said...

Thanks for the review, P.J. Much appreciated.

Dan Pink

P. J. Grath said...

Dan Pink, was this really you leaving a comment? I’m tickled--! But why didn’t you leave also a website address where people could find you? (The rest of you, check out Dan’s entertaining and surprising website. What will appear next? It’s anyone’s guess.) Thank you for visiting, and I’ll be going back to visit you again and again, too.

I want to add a postscript to my review, also, to highlight a couple aspects of it that deserve (even if they don't need) further mention. First, the content is research-driven rather than ideological. Second, the pragmatic toolkit suggestions give readers a way to turn their newly acquired knowledge of human behavior into successful strategies of their own.

DRIVE is now available in paperback and has been ordered by your Northport bookseller for Dog Ears Books.

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, silly me! OF COURSE you just click on his name!

BB-Idaho said...

After arguing with the Ayn Rand/John Gault wannabee types, it
sounds like the perfect counterpoint. My own career in research and the experience of what drives the best seems to require some hard data backing. Since I pester here,
how do I go about ordering the book from Dog Ears Books?

P. J. Grath said...

You can send me your address by e-mail (dogears at netonecom dog net, using symbols for 'at' and 'dot'), and I'll let you know where to send a check, as I don't take cards.

Author & Adventurer Loreen Niewenhuis said...

I think this motivation also explains the appeal of many video games and even gambling addictions. The mind wants to be engaged and challenged.

P. J. Grath said...

Loreen, you've reminded me of the many games of solitaire I played as a girl, out of summer boredom. It's been years since I've been bored and had time to while away with cards, but reading, writing and blogging often keep me engaged indoors.

Gerry said...

Makes sense to me. I need puzzles. Also treats . . .

P. J. Grath said...

And if you had to choose one or the other, Gerry? Hmmm. For me, that might depend on the moment. Yes, I'm sure it would.

Lista said...

Wow! Interesting. Since I'm a Slow Reader, I don't Read all that Much, yet this Book Review is Interesting. If this is the sort of Thing on this Blog, I might Follow it after all.

P. J. Grath said...

Most of the time I'm a slow reader myself, Lista. The only way I read as many books as I do is by neglecting housework and rarely going out in the evenings.

Sometimes I do a formal review, indicated in the title of a post. Many other times I write about one or more books without calling what I write a review.

Glad you visited here.

Author & Adventurer Loreen Niewenhuis said...

I think neglecting housework should be a way of life. We should be suspicious of people with ultra-clean houses and cozy up to those who don't mind dust bunnies.

P. J. Grath said...

Loreen, this is an eerie coincidence: It is January 2nd, and I just put away the vacuum cleaner after getting at the dust bunnies under bed and other pieces of furniture. Don't worry about me, though. Any clear freak who visited my house would still have plenty of reasons to recoil in horror!