What Motivates Us?

This post is a response to the RSA Animate – “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” adapted from acclaimed author Dan Pink’s talk at the RSA. The original video can be seen here

Upon hearing Pink’s opening comment in which he challenges the two conventional types of motivational forces, reward and punishment, I already began to get skeptical. But as I continued to listen, I found his assertions to be well supported.

Pink gives the example of a study done at MIT. Essentially there were three levels of monetary rewards (small, moderate, and large) offered for different tasks. It was found that as long as the task was mindless and did not required the participants to use even rudimentary cognitive skills then the performance was proportionate to the reward. However, when the task required cognitive skill or creativity the quality of performance was inversely related to the size of the reward.  The study was also duplicated in India only with an even greater rewards scale and the results were very similar. While these results seem less than intuitive, it’s hard to argue with repeated findings.

Pink goes on to suggest three factors that have been proven to yield better performance: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is the ability to direct yourself and choose your own goals. It makes sense that internal motivation and drive would yield greater results that external or imposed motivation. Pink refers to the desire for self-improvement and the drive to hone one’s skills as mastery. Any sort of recreational artist is a prime example of how mastery as a motivational force. Purpose is largely self-explanatory. If you see no value or lasting meaning in your work you simply won’t be motivated to put forth your best effort.

Upon considering Pink’s argument and impressive examples like Linux and Firefox, I started to identify these same motivating factors in my own life. As an artist myself, I fully understand the motivational power of mastery. I have spent many a late night slaving over artwork trying desperately to attain that level of perfection or mastery I desired. Often times the artwork I am most motivated to complete is totally extracurricular or part of a project that does not call for the amount of effort I pour into it.

I have also observed the converse to be true in my own life. There have been times when I have been inspired by an idea, but somewhere along the way the motivation to complete the project is externalized and I subconsciously disown the idea and lose all motivation.

I see Pink findings on human motivation as fascinating and cause for an optimistic view of human potential. In what ways could we better harness these powerful motivational forces in work or school? Perhaps many of the current business and education models should be evaluated through the lens of motivation.


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