It Is Much More Effective To Have Intrinsic Motivation – But What Does That Mean?

Have you ever wondered what REALLY motivates you? Is it fancy houses, clothes, gadgets or holidays?

The answer may surprise you.

We may think that we’re motivated by these kinds of rewards but it is actually been proven on numerous occasions that we’re not, or not truly anyway.

What do I mean by “truly”? Well if you are truly motivated then you are INTRINSICALLY motivated, this means that you are NOT motivated by external rewards but are motivated from within, you want to do something purely because you enjoy it.

Intrinsic motivation was first discovered by a scientist called Harry Harlow in 1949 when he gave Rhesus monkeys puzzles to do. The monkeys were given no rewards but did the puzzles anyway and seemed to enjoy them; they had no other motivation to do the puzzles, other than the enjoyment of the task itself. They monkeys became quite adept at solving the puzzles and solved them more frequently and quickly over the duration of the experiment.

He then introduced rewards for doing the puzzles and was surprised by the results; the monkeys began to make more mistakes and solved the puzzles less frequently.

Before Harlow’s experiments just 2 drivers of motivation had been identified, these were:

  • Survival; eating, drinking and copulation to ensure survival
  • Rewards and/or the avoidance of punishment

This experiment led Harlow to identify a third motivation driver which was:

  • Intrinsic: the need to achieve INTERNAL satisfaction

The behavioural scientists of the day rejected Harlow’s theory of intrinsic motivation until Edward Decci revived the theory in 1969. Decci found that people would carry out tasks that had no external rewards if they found them enjoyable but also found that the introduction of rewards changed how the tasks were carried out. He found that when they were then given rewards for the task, they initially worked harder, but once those rewards were removed again the group had less interest in the task than they had before the reward was introduced. It was as if the reward removed the intrinsic enjoyment of the task.

I have to say that I would have realised that rewarding someone for doing a task that they don’t particularly like doing may only have a temporary effect in boosting their motivation, but I was surprised by the fact that people who were intrinsically motivated lost that, once a reward had been introduced and then removed. In Harlow’s words it “…served to disrupt performance”.

It would have been interesting to know if the intrinsic motivation recovered with time once the memory of the rewards system faded.

Decci said “One who is interested in developing and enhancing intrinsic motivation in children, employees, students etc should not concentrate on external control system such as monetary rewards.”

In our daily lives it would seem that the key is always to make tasks more interesting and enjoyable in themselves. In the workplace this can be achieved by improving the working environment for example by introducing more comfortable working conditions, promoting good working relationships both with colleagues and managers, perhaps providing access to music when practical and so on.

I remember many years ago, one of the jobs that I did was to scan documents onto a computer and I would have to do that for hours at a time. I made it bearable by listening to music on my personal stereo and by setting targets for myself to see how many images I could scan in within a given time. This definitely made the job more bearable and with the combination of the “game” that I had given myself to play and the music, (I love listening to music) I could almost say I enjoyed the task, as long as I didn’t have to do it all day, every day!

Doing something with genuine enjoyment is always going to work better than forcing ourselves to do things we don’t like, in an environment that we don’t like, with the promise of a reward at the end. As we continually push ourselves against the grain the reward is bound to become less attractive and therefore less effective.

But as we can’t just do the things we choose all the time, we must be imaginative in finding ways of making those jobs we don’t like doing more enjoyable for ourselves and for others.

That way we’ll be generating the intrinsic motivation that we need in order to be far more productive and far happier for more of the time.


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