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What Motivates Us?

Listen to the still, small voice within you.

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Recent articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post point out the danger of ignoring “intrinsic motivation.”

Pamela Paul’s “No, Your Kid Shouldn’t Get a Gold Star for Reading” argued persuasively that the most viable route to helping a child become a lifelong book lover was to allow them opportunities to discover reasons of their own that can make reading a treasured activity. Fred Brown’s “Like Andrew Luck, kids quit sports when the joy goes away” comments on the conclusion of the National Alliance of Youth Sports “that 70 percent of kids quit playing sports by age 13 … because ‘it’s just not fun anymore.”

More than 40 years ago, innovative research led by Mark Lepper and his colleagues documented the important finding that intrinsically motivated behavior — that which is propelled by the natural curiosity or interest or joy that we are hard-wired to feel in response to our own experiences — is easily destroyed when something or someone outside the person, like a parent or a teacher or a boss or a social media site — pushes engagement in the activity. Once external rewards like gold stars, trophies, pay raises, professional or social status, or even fawning admiration, become the goal, the fun of engaging in the activity slips away. These results are similar to those observed for play: reinforcing it takes away the natural benefits, replacing spontaneous curiosity and joy with a search for gain or approval or standing.

In 2015, Mark Lepper and David Greene, as editors, released an updated version of their book, The Hidden Costs of Reward: New Perspectives on the Psychology of Human Motivations (Psychology Press, London and New York). The original, published in 1978 by Lawrence Erlbaum (New York), examined ways in which the focus on external rewards could backfire, undermining motivation and destroying the very enthusiasm they were designed to create. This newer volume looks at research done in the more than 35 years that have intervened as well as theoretical and methodological innovations and controversies. This research shows more nuance and individual differences in the sources of and results from motivation. Conclusions about the power of our internal compass remain: We thrive when we act out of sheer desire to engage in an activity for itself, whether that desire is born of a search for pleasure, a desire to avoid distasteful or problematic feelings, or determination to master emotions that come from negativity, like jealousy or fear or anger or sadness.

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Why do we do what we do? When is our motivation conscious and when is it unconscious? Are we blindly looking for little shots of dopamine to push us forward, for natural opiates to dull discomfort, for distractions that help us pretend concentration is not a chore or that sustained work is not tiring?

Or are we able to see the world from a larger perspective than that of our own comfort or management of our own pain? When and why do we search for education? Distraction? Inspiration? What does it mean when our primary source of entertainment is learning? Or experiencing — doing something directly for the sensory and affective experience of it? What happens that challenges us, throwing us into what is novel or what we may fear or allows a sense of mastery like daring a ride on a roller coaster or being able to walk through a Haunted House or across a bed of nails or a pit filled with fire? Are we then challenging consciousness or our beliefs?

As the flood of research provoked by Lepper and Greene’s original examination of intrinsic motivation has shown, we are motivated by both internal and external rewards. I addressed this very issue in my dissertation, way back in 1980. We require material and social rewards from the world around us, social relationships that bring connection into our lives, and also ways to express and develop that which comes from within, whether that expression takes form through play or creativity or spiritual experiences. With Sandra Scarr, I documented this perspective in a scientific article, and much more recently wrote about ways in which we choose our paths for PsychologyToday.

It is up to you: Can you do what is necessary to hear that "still small voice" within? Can you slow

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down, create a shelter from external stimuli and demands and examine the internal distractions that pull you away from the process? Can you engage with your own stream of consciousness long enough to identify the sources of tugs and pulls, or criticism and support, of desires to move towards and or away from? Can you ask yourself honestly, “Okay, self, what do you need now?” Are there any unfulfilled wants or unmet demands that beg you for attention? Borrow a page from Gestalt techniques and imagine various parts of you conversing with each other so that you can better hear which voices have been internalized from outside of you and which are coming from deep within. Be still and listen — or, if you hear yourself best when you are in motion, select a safe repetitive movement — and discover what is pushing or pulling you at the deepest levels.

By looking as honestly and closely as you can at your own desires and what motivates you to move towards or away from engaging in your choices, you can surrender to a higher purpose or pick a direction of your preference. In either case, you are engaging in a dialogue with your higher self and can allow the magic of intrinsic motivation to illuminate your way.

Copyright 2019 Roni Beth Tower


Lepper, M. R. & Greene, D. (Eds.) (2015). The Hidden Costs of Reward: New Perspectives on the Psychology of Human Motivation. Psychology Press: London and New York. Originally published in 1978, Lawrence Erlbaum: New York.

Tower, R. B. (1980) The Influence of Parents Values on Preschool Children’s Behavior. Yale University. University Microfilms.

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