What We Should Have Known About Motivation

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The only thing worse than a calamity is one that could have been averted. When I look back at some of the biggest disasters that affect us all today, I realize that we, the psychologically-minded, should have known better.

Practical Psychology

I became a student of Psychology in my early teens for a very selfish reason: I wanted to know why some people were “popular” and why others (most specifically and painfully: me) were not. Over the decades, my immature need to pursue “popularity” grew into an appreciation for building quality relationships. All the while, I’ve remained keenly interested in the science of behavior for its many immensely practical applications.

For a long time, I’ve understood there is a huge gulf between knowing something and being able to use that knowledge to good effect. At first the gap was purely personal. I know about the concept of spaced repetition but still study in long bursts. I know what foods are good for me and which are bad, even though I’ll sometimes choose unhealthy food over healthful food.

It wasn’t until I started reading Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us that I recognized that failure to apply what Psychology and other sciences already know is at the root of some of our biggest local, national, and even global crises. In many cases, if we really paid attention to, and understood, what science tells us about our choices, then we wouldn’t be surprised when we find ourselves in a jam.

What Psychologists Know About Motivation

In Drive, Daniel Pink reviews decades-old research on motivation and how we get others to do what we want. Psychology divides motivation into two categories: extrinsic motivation, better known as punishment and reward; and intrinsic motivation, which depends on human beings’ innate drive towards autonomy, mastery and purpose. While both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can produce results, they don’t work in all circumstances. More specifically, while we intuitively believe that extrinsic rewards (pay raises, bonuses, etc.) are globally effective, decades of robust research results tell us nothing could be further from the truth.

What we should have known was that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation do not work in isolation. A task that is intrinsically motivating can be drained of intrinsic motivation if an extrinsic motivation (say, a bonus) is offered. Furthermore, research also shows that extrinsic rewards only work for very routine, monotonous tasks that are of no interest in and of themselves. These tasks are largely immune to intrinsic motivation, so extrinsic incentives can produce modest improvements in performance. Challenging, creative work, by contrast, is strongly influenced by intrinsic motivation — and the introduction of extrinsic motivators can have a negative effect on productivity. You heard that right: if you pay people more to do productive work, they’ll actually do less of it, or do it at a lower level of quality. If we remembered these crucial facts, none of the following debacles needed to happen.

Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal

In Atlanta, Georgia, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) teaching standard threatened a titanic extrinsic punishment: raise all your students’ test scores year-over-year or face having your school closed. Teaching is a creative, challenging task. Talk with teachers and you’ll hear them hold forth on the emotional, even spiritual rewards of teaching. Applying extrinsic motivation to this kind of work is courting disaster, so imagine our surprise when many Atlanta schools started demonstrating marked improvement in their standardized test scores. Sadly, these improvements were too good to be true. Many of the gains were later shown to come as a result of a coordinated effort by school faculty and administration to raise test scores by changing answer sheets after they were turned in.

While this conspiracy is shocking and sad, motivational research tells us we had it coming. One of the ways that extrinsic motivation harms performance is that it fosters a short-sightedness that locks in on the measure that leads to the reward to the exclusion of all else. Faced with the threat of having their schools closed, “making their numbers” may have become an all-consuming obsession. The danger of this narrowed focus is that things like ethics or whether children were actually learning seem to fall by the wayside in the single-minded struggle to save the school. While these psychological facts do not excuse what the teachers and administrators did, we’d do well to look at one more example lest we believe that what happened in Atlanta is an isolated event.

Global Financial Crisis

If there was ever a place that called for careful, creative work, it is the kind of trading that goes on every day in exchanges around the world. I hope you’re beginning to feel uneasy when I remind you that this work is almost exclusively rewarded by extrinsic cash bonuses for making short-term profits. Because goals were of a short-term nature, traders’ focus was on making this quarter’s numbers even if it meant worse performance down the line. And just like the Atlanta Public Schools, a constricted focus may have led some accountants to cook their books with accounting methods that were as crooked as they were obscure. It’s also possible that the myopic focus on profit precluded a nuanced look at the risks that were being concealed in the now-famous Collateralized Debt Obligations (or CDOs) that were central to the unravelling of the real estate markets.

Executive Compensation

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Few things inspire more rage than corporate executive compensation packages. Without taking away from the arguments that such packages are unjust to the rank-and-file workers, these packages may be worth less than nothing to a company’s performance. Leading a major corporation is, without a doubt, challenging and creative work — exactly the kind of work that isn’t helped but harmed by extrinsic motivators such as astronomical bonuses and stock options. Setting aside the issue of whether a CEO should be rewarded when the company craters, we need to listen to the research: these extrinsic rewards may have contributed to the CEO’s failure.

For all its faults, extrinsic motivation remains the gold standard in academic, political, and corporate culture. Intrinsic motivation is subtle, and harder to wield. Yet as convenient as it is, if we continue to use extrinsic motivation in places where it does not work, we will continue to get what we deserve.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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