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.
Chris Riesbeck says
I don’t see how the “no intrinsic motivation” claim makes any sense. Are the hours we waste on sports, guilty pleasure reading, dining out, etc., all just done to satisfy some external metric?
That said, I think most educational challenges are about extrinsic motivation. It’s not hard to design learning environments for things with intrinsic motivation. If something is inherently interesting to you — like playing an instrument or riding a bike — you’re going to learn it. We just have to provide the resources, maybe some coaching, and not get in the way. It’s all the things you need to learn that aren’t inherently interesting that need our attention.
What we really mean by intrinsic motivations I think are extrinsic motivations that are enabled by the skill being learned, like getting a better job, getting academic recognition, being accepted into some group, as opposed to motivations such as grades that occur only inside the training / education environment.
Thank you for doing this one. For starter’s, I absolutely agree that “why” ought to be at the core of most things. It’s tough to understand something if you don’t know the “why” behind it. In fact, considering that a couple of years ago caused me to completely rebrand my professional self in a positive way – focus less on what I do and more on why I do it.
But to go back to learning, and to play devil’s advocate, doesn’t it still boil down to “I want paid to do a job and this is part of doing the job” or “I want to be promoted someday and showing I have this skill will assist in that”? We can make the veneer over that engaging and interesting and wholly different from that statement, but it still comes back to that, doesn’t it?
I think about the kid in math class asking “why do I need this?” of the teacher. The typical answers are about problem solving skills, or logic, or vague statements like “everything requires math”. But that doesn’t make derivatives or trig identities feel any better, even if placed in a realistic scenario. Perhaps I’ve yet to see a great answer to this question.
Maybe my hang-up here is that the core curriculum at the companies I’ve worked for is compulsory, much like the math class this fictional kid is taking.
Moreover it feels like a lot of good practice – simulations, real-world scenarios, and so on – are also linked to the idea that this helps the learner to a better job, which is why they get paid, which is why they can survive, thrive, and maybe have a touch of luxury too.
Or is the idea that they also have a degree of fondness for their job? I myself wouldn’t be looking at research or sites like yours or Dr. Thalheimer’s if I didn’t enjoy what I’m doing. But I also read because I want to be good at it so that I can advance my career, improve my professional standing, and so on.
Maybe I even have the wrong idea of what intrinsic motivation is though! I’ll totally allow for that. Help!
I thought I posted a comment a couple days ago but maybe I closed the browser window by mistake. The weekend has made me lose the thread that I was on, which is a shame because I’m fairly certain that I’m thoroughly confused. But I still have some thoughts and am hoping that you can set me straight (because I know that you are an expert and I have a lot of respect for your expertise)!
This may be an oversimplification, but I was always led to believe that extrinsic motivation is essentially doing something because you have to (whether that’s because someone requires it or because there is the need for something like gainful employment), and intrinsic motivation is doing something because you want to, or that you would do regardless of whether there is cheese at the end of the maze or not. I get the sense from the above that this is at least slightly off the mark but I’m not sure how.
Are you saying that while workers may take, say, an elearning course because they have to for work, we as designers and/or trainers have to find a way to make them want to do it beyond “my boss said so”?
That’s a good thought and I’m a huge proponent of starting with “why”, but isn’t that only successful if they see themselves as doing more than just a job? How do we point to the personal growth that comes with learning a proprietary system for a specialized purpose?
I think of a kid asking their calculus teacher “why”. The typical response is something like “whatever you want to do, you need math” or a vague reference to problem-solving skills, and that’s fine but that’s not real to our fictional student. And as someone who is thoroughly sympathetic to the plight of teachers, I nonetheless still can’t see much personal value to derivatives.
Now, that example comes from a compulsory school environment, but a lot of training ends up being compulsory as well. How do we reposition something like that?
I agree with your apt assessment of the ‘no intrinsic’, Chris. However, while I do believe we do a lot with extrinsic, I think we can do better with intrinsic. Why is this important? Does it help people? Will it make you more effective in your (coming) job? (And if we can’t make more relevant than just adding scores, maybe it’s not really important? ;)
DM, I think that there’s a bit more. It’s not just that it makes you better at your job, but it helps you meet your ‘purpose’ better. Assuming, of course, that your org’s done a good job of making that manifest ;). But we learn how to build better products, or get better at sales, or customer service lines to help people meet *their* needs better. At least, that’s the world I want to live in!
DM, yes, you’re on it. It’s about us doing a better job than ‘because the boss said so’. And, yes, if they’re just there for the job, this doesn’t work. But it’s also part of my campaign for more meaningful workplaces that people are given purpose (and mastery and autonomy). And even if they are just there for a job, many things really do have reasons and it helps if we tap into that.