Intrinsic Motivation and Magical Unicorns

The art and science of time management.

Intrinsic Motivation! Magical Unicorns! Serial killers!

Shouldn't you just do some things because you're supposed to?

Elizabeth Báthory was a Hungarian countess who tortured and killed over 600 girls and women in the early 17th century.   Clearly this was an individual with some disordered motivations.  Ideally we'd like to see her develop empathy and other pro-social intrinsic reasons for not serially brutalizing others, but if the best we could do were keeping her behavior in check with extrinsic reward, well I'd settle for that.  I really wish her parents had offered her music downloads or candy corns or 20 minutes past-bedtime play for every day she could go without hurting someone. 

That's the horrifying tale I like to tell when the question about intrinsic motivation comes up.  And inevitably the question comes up.  At a workshop, or in consultation, a parent will lower her chin to her chest, widen her eyes, and get a really serious look on her face.  "But shouldn't you just do some things because you're supposed to?  How long do I have to reward him for doing things that other kids his age are just doing?  What about intrinsic motivation?"

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And basically, I can't disagree with that.  Kids should just do math homework.  Partners in love should stick with commitments they've made about the nature of their relationships.  Politicians should follow through with campaign promises.  And magical unicorns should sprinkle rainbow colored candies on my pillow each night.

The fact that we are in my office, having this conversation, means there are some age-appropriate expectations that are not being met.  And rather than talking about what should be, I'm thinking we'd best talk about what is.  Whatever you've noticed at home or at school, that's the truth of the situation.  And we'll take that truth as a starting point. 

The parent's list of developmental need-to's is probably reality-based.  Successful adjustment to adult life will require a whole slew of skills he has not yet acquired.  And if we're talking about a student with ADD/ADHD or other executive dysfunction, we can essentially knock three years off her chronological age and, with that lower number in mind, we ask "now what would I expect of a child that age?"  Frankly, I've met many young adults - people in their early- to mid-20s - who aren't demonstrating the emotional and cognitive maturity we should see in a 15 year old. 

And approaching this as a skills-acquisition issue, we see the parent's and teacher's role as facilitating that development.  Whatever it takes, for as long as it takes.  Even if it means "extrinsic" reward. 

Nobody does anything without some reward, some motivation.  And that typically boils down to a feeling, in our bodies.  All I might be able to tell you is that I like doing this because it feels "good."  But my "good" is a very specific brain/body state that I like to feel.  I probably have half a dozen feelings around which I organize my activity.  And if you invite me to take part in some activity that will generate those preferred feelings, you can count me in.  On the other hand, if you're about to ask me to take out the trash or write a really long (5 pages?!) and boring paper, I'm just not feeling you.  You've got to connect that task to those feelings that I like to experience. 

Here's the how-to.  Several years ago there was a bit of research suggesting that, for students with ADHD, stimulant therapy "increases the saliency of a mathematical task by increasing dopamine in the human brain."   Notice, the meds didn't make kids enjoy math.  Rather, the kids were more in-touch with why they were doing the math.  More in touch with the WIFM (what's in it for me?) factor. 

And that's exactly what skillful teachers and parents are doing.  Increasing the saliency of (dull or difficult) tasks.  "Imagine how good you'll feel when you've finished the paper!"  "Visualize the look of pleasure on your aunt's face when she finally gets the thank-you note!"

But sometimes the task is just so hard (anything greater than a 3 on a 10-point scale of perceived difficulty may be too hard for young children or students with ADHD).  Or the hoped-for intrinsic reward is too weak, or too far off in the future (more than 30 minutes is too far).  That's where our hero, extrinsic reinforcement, saves the day.  What would it take to increase the saliency of this hard/dull task, to really wake your brain up to the WIFM factor?  A couple of music downloads when you've finished?  20 extra minutes of video games?   The reward has to be, of course, safe and practical and affordable.  But it needs to be powerful enough to "increase the saliency" of the important (I'm sure it's important because you're the parent, you would not be insisting on task completion if it weren't really really important to long term successful life adjustment, right?) but difficult task before me.

We want to move to intrinsic motivation whenever it is at all feasible.  The happiest and most well-adjusted and sociable adults are folks who maintain their own arousal and motivation and mood.  Let's say Tamra is a 5-year old girl who finds it difficult to make it through a play date without shoving or biting her peers.  We'll do whatever it takes to support her getting through an activity with no aggressive behavior.  Even extrinsic reward.  Because it's just so important that Tamra get through a play date successfully.  And the red hot minute we get any glimmer of intrinsic reward ("I think my friends like me more when I don't bite them") we will jump in there and fan the flames.  "You think so?  What makes you think they like you more when you don't bite them?  What exactly do you notice?  And how does it feel when you think they like you more?  And knowing that, what would you like to do or not do the next time we get together with these friends?"

There are full grown, essentially normally functioning adults who are still not doing certain needful tasks for reasons that could be framed as intrinsic.  I get no kicks from filing quarterly taxes.  Nothing in my body zings or soars when I'm doing my billing.  I do these things for clearly identifiable extrinsic reasons:  to avoid punishment or to get some perceived benefit. 

And I know I should just do them.  I really should.  And I'm still waiting for the unicorns.

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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