The truth about motivation

We all think we know how to motivate another human being. Either ply them with incentives to do better or threaten them with consequences if they don’t. It’s a simple formula that is so deeply cemented in our collective knowledge that we believe that it’s almost instinctive; but what if I told you that this rule is not universal? That, like classical mechanics and quantum mechanics, at a certain point and for certain tasks this carrot-stick rule no longer applies? The truth of Motivation is more complex than a series of if/then outcomes.

This concept is what Daniel Pink covers in his book, ‘Drive: the surprising Truth’. In it he talks about the levels of motivation and how human motivations have evolved with us. In the early days when our goals were simplistic and we were just trying to survive, the carrot-stick approach was appropriate and effective. We hunted for food, we had sex for sexual pleasure, we were basically motivated by our biology. As we evolved and created environments where our survival was no longer an imminent threat our motivations began to evolve too.  It was the same basic idea, we did things that benefited us and avoided things that didn’t, except now the motivators themselves had changed. They did not come from a place of biology, but rather from extrinsic motivations like money. However we have discovered that there are flaws in our idea that humans are just beings that move towards things that provide extrinsic benefits and away from things that offer extrinsic punishments.

One of the flaws of the carrot/stick theory is that it does not take into account Intrinsic Motivation. Our cynical view that humans are only moved by extrinsic motivators like money does not factor in the ‘humanness’ of human beings. Numerous social experiments have shown that when people are plied with incentives in certain circumstances it can actually have a negative effect on productivity and efficiency. Motivational speakers aim to stir the flames of intrinsic motivation by empowering people to look inwards and change their lives.

For instance, in 1995 two Swedish economists decided to test a statement made by British sociologist Richard Titmuss, that basically stated that offering payment for blood donation was inefficient and would ultimately reduce Britain’s blood supply. They identified a group of 153 women that were already interested in giving blood. They split this pool into 3 groups; one group they told that donating blood was voluntary, the second was told that they would receive compensation for donating blood and the third was told that they would get compensated but that they would have the option to donate their money to cancer treatment. Surprisingly the results showed that 52% of the first group gave blood, 30% of the second group gave blood and 53% of the third group gave blood. Why did the group that was getting paid have such a low turnout? Because giving blood is supposed to a noble activity, by offering payment its altruistic nature was corrupted and any intrinsic motivation they had to do a good thing was diminished.

What is the moral? The moral is that human beings are complex creatures that are moved by more than extrinsic rewards. That in fact, in certain circumstances contingent rewards could in fact result in diminishing the very things we wanted to increase by setting up the incentives in the first place. This sense of autonomy, that the key to improving one’s life is in the palm of your hand, is the reason that motivational speakers are such an effective tool in organizations and businesses.

We are more than our primitive motivation and we are more than rationally self-serving animals. Human behaviour does not always follow the linear path of reward and punishment as we have intrinsic motivations and desires, all of which help move, shape and mould the decisions we make.