Why We Do What We Do

What makes us get up every morning? Or what drives us to go to work, be with our loved ones, excel in a sport… What motivates us? That is the question that this article tries to answer. Not answer in full, you would probably need a full decade of studying and a book to explain it. This article tries to enlighten you on the basic principles of motivation, and how you can use it to your advantage.

Also see my review of Drive.

Intrinsic Motivation

Motivation is what energizes people and directs their energy, it can be divided into two different kinds. The first, and most powerful is intrinsic motivation (or effectance motivation). This is the innate motivation for dealing with your environment. It follows from competent interactions with the environment and is not dependent on any drive-based reinforcements. This means no external factors are needed to fuel this motivation, it is based on organismic needs to be competent and self-determining.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is directed towards the environment, towards attaining a certain goal, or outcome. A common example of this rewards, the pay you receive for the work you do. Other forms of extrinsic motivation are competition and punishment. But both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be complementary, you can work because you feel competent and you get paid well.

The Best

So what works best, intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. The vast majority of people would say the latter, but it is the first. It is not the pay you get that motivates you, it is the opportunities you get that drive you. When intrinsic motivation is activated you get better results, more creativity and less tension. But when you activate extrinsic motivation, creativity dies, results diminish and tension increases.


A great example of this is the Candle Problem by Duncker in 1945. He asked participants to attach a lit candle to the wall. The participants had; a candle, matches, pins which were presented in a box. Although people tried a wide range of solutions, only by pinning the box to the wall and putting the candle in the box, they could solve the problem. There were two conditions, the first group was told their time would be used to set the bar, they were not presented with any extra rewards. The second group was told that their time could win them money, up to 10 dollars for the best time. Then something counter-intuitive happened, the second group took 3,5 minutes longer on average to solve the problem than the first group. They had an extrinsic motivation that superseded their intrinsic motivation, it killed their creativity and diminished the performance.

From this, we can conclude that extrinsic motivation is a killer for tasks that require a cognitive load, that makes you think (even a little bit). So what if you presented the materials next to the box. In 1963 Glucksberg did exactly this, and the incentivized group outperformed the intrinsic group. So for simple tasks, that do not require any real thinking, external motivation does work. But sadly that is not how it is applied in the life of today, people are incentivized by big bonuses, cars from the company, but also in school by paying kids for grades. It kills creativity, promotes short-term thinking (narrowed focus) and diminishes performance.

To Conclude

So we must stop giving monetary and other external motivators to improve performance. To make someone work, learn and excel it is best to give someone the freedom to express his intrinsic motivation, to let free the creativity. One great example of this is the 20% time, invented at 3M in 1948 and applied at Google, HP, and other great companies. It states that workers get 20% of their time to work on projects they like, on things they are intrinsically motivated to do. What kind of results can it bring? Major innovations have sprung up in the 20% time, things like HTML and Gmail are only a small example of this.


References & Further Reading:

1. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Springer.

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivation

3. http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

4. Weisberg, R., & Suls, J. M. (1973). An information-processing model of Duncker’s candle problem. Cognitive psychology4(2), 255-276.

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candle_problem

6. http://lifehacker.com/5932586/make-work-feel-less-like-work-with-the-8020-rule