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Wednesday, January 04, 2006 

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Ever walked by a company bulletin board and see "Job Well Done, Johnny!" posted by a manager, and get a creepy feeling? Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards helped me understand why this is so distasteful.

Extrinsic Motivation is doing something because of a promise of a reward (a 'carrot') or the threat of a punishment (a 'stick'). Kohn's book examines what happens when students or business people are manipulated via extrinsic motivators like pizza, money or gold stars.

Intrinsic Motivation is doing something from within yourself (intrinsic = 'originating or due to causes within a body').

Let's apply this to moral codes.

  • Johnny doesn't kill Fred, because he doesn't want to go to Hell. Extrinsic motivator.
  • Johnny doesn't kill Fred because he wants to go to Heaven. Extrinsic motivator.
  • Johnny doesn't kill Fred because it is against the law. Extrinsic motivator.
  • Johnny doesn't kill Fred because his heart tells him that isn't right. Intrinsic motivator.

Extrinsically motivated people are externally manipulated people.

I'm trying to raise my kids to be intrinsically motivated. It's harder because I can't demand instant obedience. I have to take a longer view, and go over again and again, "would you want to be treated that way? Is that OK to do?"

Here's a short quote from Mr. Kohn:
There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators— including A's, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.
If this is true, our country is full of extrinsically motivated (religious) people who over the long haul have less commitment to good values.

Sounds about right to me.

Great book! We have a copy of that which we bought after taking out children out of the public school system. When they were in school they were never rewarded for getting good grades like their peers. When they told us that so and so got a dollar for each A received, we just openly told them that they should want to get A's because they are LEARNING something new and interesting. Our three didn't even get an allowance. We told them they live here, they help. We all pitch in. When they were old enough they earned money for doing jobs for us, like washing the car or something like that. But not for keeping their own stuff neat and orderly or making their bed, etc....that is just what people have to do in life and we don't get rewarded for taking care of ourselves and our own stuff. And like you say, children have to learn to be compassionate because it is the right thing to do, not because someone is going to give you a cookie for being nice.

Good stuff!
Let me tell you what I do with my kids sometimes. Judaism always asks: What are your values? So if one of my kids acts selfishly , I might call them on thir values. I will ask them "Is doing that more important than your brother's feelings?" or "Do you think that your desire to have this is more important than your friend's property rights?" That has worked well for me. In fact my oldest son says I am very skilled at making people feel bad about themselves (not my intention). - JF

I'm glad to get examples from other parents, thanks!

Jewish freak, do you know others like yourself that can take a concept from a religious context and intelligently apply it to your life? I'm impressed.

I'm not sure about others besides myself, but there is a Jewish Rabbinical saying that goes: "The reward for a good deed is the good deed (itself), and the reward for a bad deed is the bad deed (itself)". This idea is part of our culture so I imagine many other Jewish parents do similar things. - JF

This appears to me to be an expression of the classic distinction between means and ends -- developed by Aristotle around 400 B.C.

Aristotle described two types of value. "Instrumental value" is the value we put in things as instruments or tools. They are "useful" because of their ability to bring about other things.

"End value" is the value that things have simply because we value them. Sex, food, drink, avoidance of pain, beauty. These might also be useful tools, but we also value them without any regard to their usefulness.

It is true that the only way we can get somebody to do "the right thing", and to do it even when nobody is looking, is to get them to value it as an end.

(Note: This comes from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, and is further developed by the 19th century British philosopher John Mill. Mill points out how "moral education" takes place. A child learns how to value something as a means -- because it is useful. However, over time, it becomes a habit, and the come to value a thing as an end, independent of all usefulness. In this way, we use reward and punishment to teach a child to value truth. But, in the end, he comes to value truth even when there is no reward or punishment attached. His fondness for truth transforms from a "means" to an "end".]

The person with "extrinsic motivation" simply has not made this transformation. He is still locked in the child-like state of viewing morality as a means rather than an end. Thus, he can only be trusted when he is being watched. From this, ancient people decided to invent an all-seeing watcher, to keep these immature people in line.

Or, at least, there is some reason to think that this is the case.

[Sorry for rambling, but the subject interests me a great deal.]

Alonzo Fyfe
The Atheist Ethicist

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  • I'm the freethoughtmom from New England. Welcome!
  • The word rational means having the ability to reason. Reasoning takes time. Giving yourself the space to think is practically a luxury in our society.

    My father is a logical engineer, my mother a caring nurturer. My handwriting with my dominate hand resembles that of my father, the other, my mother. I feel lucky to have both sides to draw from.
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