Is intrinsic motivation better?

Sugar is motivation

Last week, the British band Lamb played a 21-year anniversary concert in the Amsterdam Paradiso. It was a great show and also a wonderful demonstration of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. So let me start his blog with a story Andy shared on stage.

When Andy was nineteen, beautiful Lou asked him to play in a band. Andy immediately agreed, imagining that in a few years time Lou would be his girlfriend. Twenty-one years later, he never even got to kiss her but still frantically jumped around the stage.

According to motivation theory Andy was extrinsically motivated for playing in the band with Lou: he was tempted by a reward that was not inherent to making music. For the sake of the story we’ll assume that Lou was intrinsically motivated, enjoying the activity of singing, being tempted by rewards inherent to the activity of making music.

As you can probably guess, you’ll find many people telling you that intrinsic motivation is better. Moreover, they may warn you that extrinsic rewards undermine our natural intrinsic motivation! I think that to the brain intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are just two cupcakes containing the same sugar. Therefore it may be just fine to tempt people with extrinsic rewards such that they can discover intrinsic rewards later on. Andy for sure didn’t appear less motivated than Lou.

Deci and Ryan
Deci and Ryan, advocates of intrinsic motivation

Performance is indifferent to the source of reward

Reward is important to the brain: there is a whole network of neurons dedicated to processing reward. These neurons respond to the size of reward but may be indifferent to the source of reward. When people imagine performing intrinsically motivating activities, brain areas respond that are known to process extrinsic reward, a recent paper in Cognitive Affective Neuroscience shows. So in the brain reward is just reward.

It matters to the people who want to control you

Of course people who claim that intrinsic motivation is better have a point. From the perspective of those who want to control you, intrinsic motivation comes for free whereas extrinsic motivation requires continuous investment (money, candy, extra desert).

Don’t extrinsic rewards kill intrinsic motivation?

So how about this story that extrinsic rewards thwart intrinsic motivation? In the end it may all depend on the size of the reward.

Reward prediction error
We don’t like rewards to decrease

We don’t like rewards to decrease. It shocks our brain due to reward prediction error. We hate it. In Holland we get a cookie with our coffee. If I don’t get it, I feel upset. So if you give a big financial reward for something like cleaning the car and remove it, someone will stop doing it because the reward for the activity has decreased. If the financial reward were small enough someone may discover additional intrinsic rewards that eventually live up to the financial reward. For instance feeling competent at car cleaning or getting attention from the cute neighbor.

Reward economically

So if you want to seduce someone in discovering intrinsic motivators, you should start with a minimal extrinsic reward, allowing intrinsic rewards to live up to the value of the extrinsic rewards.

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