Daniel Pink: The Psychology of Intrinsic Motivation

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What is intrinsic motivation? How does the intrinsic drive compare to extrinsic rewards when it comes to performance?

Intrinsic motivation is a desire to do something for internal satisfaction, not for external rewards. External rewards (e.g. financial compensation) enhance performance in the short term, while intrinsic motivation is more enduring—it doesn’t decay as external rewards do.

In this article, we’ll look at the psychology of intrinsic motivation, and the role of intrinsic rewards in performance enhancement.

Rethinking Motivation

In the 1940s, operant conditioning was the standard model of behavior. The foundation of this model was that if you give a reward to someone after a behavior, you encourage that behavior to happen again. If you don’t reward a behavior, it extinguishes over time. This idea was borne out in numerous animal studies and also became the model for human management in the workplace.

But in 1949, Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology, discovered a deviation from this standard reward model. His team had created a mechanical puzzle for rhesus monkeys to complete. They placed the puzzles in the monkey cages to habituate them to the puzzle in preparation for the real studies that would happen two weeks later. But strangely, the monkeys began playing with the puzzles independently, with determination and what looked like enjoyment. Without any explicit rewards like fruit juice, the monkeys learned to solve the puzzle of their own volition. Classic operant conditioning couldn’t explain this – why would the monkeys do anything without the expectation of a reward?

In psychology, intrinsic motivation was a new idea at the time. It prompted Harlow to offer another model of motivation: “intrinsic reward.” The joy of the task was its own reward – no extrinsic rewards needed to be given

Even more surprisingly, introducing rewards like food decreased monkey performance – they made more errors and solved the puzzles less frequently. External rewards seemed to disrupt performance, contrary to standard reward models.

This research was controversial and lay fallow until 1969, when a graduate student named Edward Deci discovered Harlow’s research and tried a new experiment with humans. All participants were tasked with solving puzzles requiring rearrangement of separate plastic pieces into shapes.

The experiment ran in one-hour sessions held over 3 consecutive days. In each session, a participant was given 3 puzzles. When the participant had solved 2 of 3 puzzles, Deci told the participant he had to step out for a few minutes to retrieve the 4th puzzle, and the participant was free to do whatever she liked. Deci stepped out for precisely eight minutes and watched what the participant did when left alone. This secret observation period allowed the researchers to measure motivation – the longer someone played when unsupervised, the more motivated the person was.

Deci split participants into two groups: group A and group B. On Day 1, he treated both groups the same. On Day 2, Deci treated them differently – he told Group A that they’d be paid $1 for every puzzle they solved. Group B got no reward. Then, on Day 3, he told Group A there wouldn’t be enough money to pay for Day 3, so they would be unpaid. Once again, Group B got no reward, just more puzzles.

Here were the results (summarized, not exact):

 Day 1Day 2Day 3
 Reward?MinutesReward?MinutesReward?Minutes
Group ANo Reward3.7Reward5No Reward2.9
Group BNo Reward3.7No Reward3.7No Reward3.9

For Group B, the playtime didn’t change substantially over the 3 days. On Day 1 they began engaged (intrinsically motivated), and this persisted day after day. The joy of the task alone was enough to get them to solve puzzles, and this didn’t diminish over time.

But for Group A, Deci found that introducing a reward gave a momentary boost to motivation – in Day 2, Group A participants increased their play time by about a minute. But on Day 3, when Deci removed the reward, play time plummeted, even below the original Day 1 when no reward was even suggested.

The conclusion: rewards enhance performance in the short term, at the expense of intrinsic motivation. Once the reward is removed, overall motivation decreases.

Intrinsic motivation, therefore, is a natural drive. People seek out novelty and challenges and want to learn. But developing intrinsic motivation requires a nurturing environment, one where external rewards don’t quash this spirit. 

The Three Components of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is made up of three components:

  • Autonomy: having a choice in what you do, and being self-driven
  • Mastery: wanting to get more skilled and be recognized for competency
  • Purpose: understanding why you’re doing the work. Often centered around helping other people

A bit more about each component:

Autonomy

  • There are four major dimensions of autonomy:
    • Over tasks: people can choose what they work on
    • Over time: people can choose when they work
    • Over technique: people can choose how they accomplish the goal
    • Over team: people can choose who they work with
  • Different people prefer different mixes of these dimensions of autonomy.
  • Management guidance: People are naturally wired to be self-driven. Set the direction, trust people to do a good job, and then be hands-off.

Mastery

  • People naturally want to get better at skills and be recognized for their skills.
  • To make faster progress on the path to mastery, conduct deliberate practice:
    • Do challenging tasks that are at the limit of your ability, but not so hard that you will certainly fail.
    • Set clear goals for yourself.
    • Get fast feedback on how you’re doing and what you can improve.
    • Keep doing the above consistently.
  • Management guidance: apply the principles of deliberate practice to workers.
  • Striving for mastery is painful. There’s no way around it. If it were so easy, we’d all be masters of our craft.

Purpose

  • Understanding the purpose and impact of work is motivating. 
  • A particularly common and especially motivating purpose is helping other people.
  • To promote purpose in the workplace:
    • Explain why something needs to be done.
    • Set company values around deeper ideals like “honor” and “helping the community” rather than steril words like “efficiency” and “value.”
    • Allow workers to spend time on socially meaningful projects.
Daniel Pink: The Psychology of Intrinsic Motivation

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  • Why you may be feeling unmotivated and unsatisfied at work and in life
  • Why financial rewards aren't enough to keep employees motivated anymore
  • The three components of intrinsic motivation

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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