I was asked to comment on intrinsic motivation, and was pointed to an article claiming that it’s a myth(!). Given that I’m a staunch advocate of intrinsic motivation, I felt this was something that I should comprehend. Is intrinsic motivation a myth? My inclination is ‘no’, but let’s explore.
As background, there’s usually a distinction made between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is, to me, when you use external incentives to motivate someone to do something. You can use tangible offerings like money or products/produce, or more ephemeral rewards like points. Intrinsic motivation is, instead, finding out what people care about and tapping into that. Helping them see that this behavior aligns with their own intentions, so to speak.
The article claims that all intrinsic motivation is merely subverted extrinsic motivation. There are things we want, but it’s shameful to admit it, so we disguise our intent. Which is a very behavioristic way to view it. And I think it’s wrong.
There are debates about our motivators. Altruism, for instance, would seem to be contrary to one’s interests, since doing something for others would disadvantage oneself. However, a more complex view suggests that there are benefits to altruism. Improving society improves the world for our offspring, for instance. So doing things for the common good isn’t, to me, a legitimate challenge.
But there are also our interests. Intellectual interests. You could argue that they are to serve a larger purpose like a bigger paycheck, but we also expend resources to do things we enjoy: our hobbies, entertainment, and the like. So there doesn’t have to be a totally mercenary motivation.
And, my point isn’t to try to find fault with anyone’s argument, but instead to find useful ways forward. What can, and should we do? First, we should find out why whatever we’re teaching is important. Here’s a hint: if we can’t find the reason, why are we bothering? Otherwise, let’s make that reason manifest to the learner! Safety, less errors, faster solutions, happier customers, these are all plausible. When, of course, learners understand how their role fits in to the bigger picture (read: purpose).
Of course, if we can segment our learners to the point where we can tap into elements unique to the audience, we might do even more. For a course on project management for civil engineers working on large infrastructure projects, for instance, I exaggerated it one level to terraforming planets.
So, I want to promote, not deny, intrinsic motivation. Finding a real reason people should do something is far better than trying to incite them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t want to do. There are more nuances, about building habits, but my short answer is to find why it’s important, and work on that. It’s a better long-term bet.