Fixing Psychology

The once and future behaviorism.

The "Puzzle of Motivation"... and Behaviorism

The importance of autonomy, mastery, and purpose... and contingencies

Dan Pink has a TED talk, The Puzzle Of Motivation, it is a good talk, and you should watch it. The moral is that often giving people things like cash incentives makes them worse at tasks. Being told about some "carrots and sticks" doesn't get people to perform at peak efficiency in creative tasks, instead you want to emphasize 'autonomy, mastery, and purpose'. This is a reliable experimental finding, it has important implications for business and society at large, and you should know about it. What you shouldn't do, however, is buy into the standard and ever-annoying rhetoric regarding contingencies.

You see, the talk feeds into a standard thinking about why behaviorism is bad. The alternatives he is offering, broadly speaking, are not in conflict. The disparaged position is a very typical misunderstanding and mis-presenting of Skinner's particular brand of behaviorism. Skinner's system is by no means flawless, but these are not its flaws. That people are bad at using "carrots and sticks" does not mean they don't work. Much more importantly, however, just because carrots and sticks don't improve people's performance on particular tasks does not mean we should eschew them all together.

Let me grant you that the solving of complex problems is better accomplished by allowing autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I'm willing to grant that, because the evidence shows it is true.

Still, we must explain how you came about these things. Dan defines them informally as follows:

Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.

Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.

Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

People are not born this way. To be fair, babies do want to be part of something larger than themselves... they are thinking "attach to mommy" not "join PeaceCorp".

Over the course of our lives, many of us have come to respond against other's suggestions or irrespective of others suggestions. We have come to lack sensitivity to certain transient environmental pressures. We have become autonomous, and we do things to promote that autonomy. 

Over the course of our lives, many of us have learned to persist at difficult tasks. Usually we like particular types of difficult tasks, and we often take pride in accomplishing difficult goals. That is, we have learned to work towards mastery of certain things.

Over the course of our lives, many of us have learned to maintain membership in certain types of social groups. Sometimes our staying is based on individuals we like, sometimes it is based on a goal the group is moving towards. If the group breaks up, we seek out similar groups. One trait many of us has learned to value in such groups is the ability to accomplish things it would be impossible for us to accomplish individually. That is, we have learned to work towards a larger purpose.

These enduring traits are often more valuable in leading to our success at immediate tasks (and out success in life), than the come and go of simple incentives offered by, say, our bosses. However, that doesn't mean that the incentives acting upon us are unimportant, and it definitely does not mean the incentives acting upon us in the past are unimportant.

A past history of reward and punishment is, is, is, is, part of a complete story of how you developed those attributes. Operant conditioning happens, and it works, and this is a crucial part of why people develop the way they do. If people hadn't made "carrots and sticks" contingent on our behaviors when we were younger, we would never have developed into autonomous, mastery-driven, purposeful adults. (Hopefully none you had people actually trying to use carrots or sticks.)

We were built, over time --- through intentional acts, unintentional acts, and the general way in which our world works --- into people who get better at rote tasks when offered rewards and who get better at "creative" tasks when we were not. Our current being is based on the lifetime of successes and failures of our actions in the various situations we-as-individuals have found ourselves in, in the crazy world we all find ourselves in.

What Dan's talk shows.... I mean, what the cited research shows..... is this: The contingencies that we use to develop your useful skills are not necessarily the same contingencies that we should use to get you to effectively deploy already-developed skills.

This is an incredibly important point. But phrased that way, it shouldn't be too controversial. It certainly shouldn't invoke the idea that there is a sharp distinction between people who believe in offering reward and those who don't.

In fact, if anything the talk shows what types of rewards work. If you have a business that runs on creative energy, don't tell your employees "Do X on time and I will give you an extra $50", pay your employees well, and tell them "Get X done on time and I don't care where you do it." Working from home (or the coffee house, or the beach) is still a reward; it is just a different kind of reward. 

P.S. Thanks to Rich Murray for sharing this TED talk with me. His take on the talk can be found here.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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