Why Motivation Works … And When

15 May

There are two types of motivations:

Intrinsic motivation: comes from within oneself and leads to a person doing more of something for the joy of it, without being much influenced by the outcome. As they say – The journey is the reward. Intrinsic motivation always leads to engagement. When people are intrinsically motivated, their engagement with an activity increases, which leads to further and prolonged engagement that requires sustaining. In the absence of sustained engagement, motivation would go down quickly. In a typical classroom, the students start losing interest after about ten minutes. Extrapolating the same theory to online courses, I’d say people need to be re-engaged every ten minutes or so. When people are motivated, they want to do more of that activity because they find it challenging, interesting, funny, prestigious, intellectual, or it satisfies some other visceral need.

Extrinsic motivation: is triggered by external factors (both positive and negative), usually called rewards and punishment by education professionals; for example, promising a new laptop or a vacation to a kid if she gets an A in a test, or threatening to lock down the video game if she doesn’t get an A. Both approaches might work in the short term. The kid will try her best to get an A, but not try her best to learn the subject matter. The end result is now more important than the effort and learning. This approach doesn’t work in the long term. And in the absence of a reward or punishment, she might not try to get an A. This pretty much explains the current state of our education system.

So why does every school and organization dangle a carrot or show a stick to motivate people? Because it has been the conventional wisdom for hundreds of years. A century ago, during the industrial revolution, the assembly line production became very popular. People didn’t need to think much. They just needed to do the same thing again and again. When they were paid more money, their productivity increased. And thus was born the convention that incentives increase productivity, which is true in cases where people don’t need to use their brain.

However, in today’s knowledge economy, creativity and innovation are the key to being competitive. In tasks that require cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and reasoning, incentives work in a way exactly the opposite of what’s expected. Thinking and creativity go down as has been proved in numerous research studies. So what works in today’s world? In short – meaning and purpose. Employees are engaged when they believe that they are doing meaningful work, that they have a purpose. Students are engaged when they believe that what they are learning is relevant to their lives or at least makes sense to them.

I got my bachelor’s degree in engineering without feeling, even for a moment, that it serves a meaning in my life. I switched careers. Then I got a master’s degree in education, and got very passionate about educating our kids the right way … by engaging them.

Related readings

Motivational Design
How to Stay Motivated
Grading: The Issue Is Not How But Why


5 Responses to “Why Motivation Works … And When”


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