“You can look for external sources of motivation and that can catalyze a change, but it won't sustain one. It has to be from an internal desire.” - Jillian Michaels
Whether it’s going to work or going to work out, the source of what gets you going is a major indicator of potential success. BF Skinner’s ideas about motivation have long been held as the 20th century default in business, education and self help. External reinforcement, both positive and negative, are ideal motivators for changing behavior.
If you want to perform a job faster or at a higher level of quality, you add a dash of external positive or negative reinforcement. The carrot and stick mentality. Lose 10 lbs and buy a new outfit. For every 100 envelopes stuffed, the employee gets an extra $5.
Here in the 21st century, a more potent form of motivation is being uncovered -- intrinsic motivation -- and it’s blowing the carrot and stick mentality out of the water. Daniel Pink, in his popular book, Drive, and popular TED talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, uses research to make a strong case against traditional external motivators.
He has found that while extrinsic, or If/Then motivators, work for very simple cognitive tasks (like stuffing envelopes), they act as demotivators for more complex tasks, especially those that involve creative thinking.
According to Pink, “If/Then rewards often destroy creativity.”
He takes a close look at this study by Sam Glucksberg, who looked at the effect of adding external motivators to Karl Duncker’s Candle Problem - a cognitive performance test measuring creative problem solving.
Subjects were given 3 items (or so they thought) -- a box of tacs, a candle and matches -- and were asked to try and affix the candle to the wall so that no wax would drip. The solution to the problem relies on the subjects identifying that the box holding the tacs can be used to hold the candle and the box is the item to be affixed to the wall.
When subjects were offered additional money for performing the task more quickly, they actually performed more slowly than control subjects offered no cash. In brief, adding external motivators to this creative learning task decreased the subject’s performance.
The external incentive essentially derailed the subject’s internal, intrinsic motivation, which would better serve them in solving this complex problem. This is called the Overjustification Effect and it has been proven to hinder cognitive tasks and decrease charitable motivation.
So what does this mean in regards to a person’s drive and motivation to improve their lives?
Well, when it comes to work, it’s important to realize that the paycheck is a pretty weak motivator and poor predictor of job satisfaction. So if you’re taking a less than ideal job, just for the money, you’re not going to be happy in the long run. You’ve got to find internal motivation to keep yourself satisfied at work and wanting to get out of bed in the morning.
Well, how about working out? External motivators might be beneficial there, right? Well, maybe. This study in The Journal of Obesity added financial incentives to losing weight and found they also had little to no influence on results. They neither diminished nor enhanced the subjects internal motivation for healthy lifestyle changes.
This study of athletes from Inside Sports Psychology, however, found the best results came from a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Authors Costas I. Karageorghis and Peter C. Terry found, “Athletes who are predominantly extrinsically motivated tend to become discouraged when they do not perform to expectations and can experience a downturn in form. Conversely, athletes who are predominantly intrinsically motivated often do not have the competitive drive to become champions. This is because they tend to enjoy mastering the tasks that comprise their chosen discipline, but they lack a strong competitive streak in their personalities.”
So what is the best way to motivate people to improve themselves? Considering that there are so many theories of motivation out there and so much research still being done, it might be safe to say . . . it depends.
“I believe the invisible force of internal drive activated is the most important thing in the world. The defining factor is never resources it’s resourcefulness. If you have the right emotion, it’s the ultimate resource.”