Recently I’ve been frustratingly frustrated, channeling a lot of my energy into feeling fed up rather than getting on with things like writing my blog. Most of the time I charge along doing what feels like a million things at once: chasing ideas and projects, frantically trying to keep up with my business, a step ahead of client requests and only one step behind what I need to put into my daughters’ school bag for the next day. But at the moment I have lost my fizz, sparkle, steam, whatever you want to call it for just about everything.………..A torn hamstring may well be to blame but whatever the cause the outcome is that I’ve lost my motivation (and no motivational quote is going to help change that)!
Motivation is a topic of great interest to psychologists, boasting a myriad of studies and whole heap of research. Its understanding is critical in areas as wide ranging as: engaging populations around health campaigns, motivating a workforce, encouraging children to learn, progressing artificial intelligence and understanding decision-making, economic behaviour, addiction and psychiatry.
Psychologically speaking motivation is categorized into two types: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within, for example it’s the type of motivation that means you want to get up out of bed in the morning for the pure pleasure of starting the day. This doesn’t apply to me as I am about as far from a morning person as someone can be so I need either a punishment (losing a client because I don’t turn up to a meeting) or reward (a cup of tea in bed) to get me moving. These are not internally driven.
Other examples of intrinsic motivation include:
- reading a book because you’re fascinated by the subject
- taking part in a sport because you simply love doing it
- writing for the pleasure of creating something through words
Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of us and is a response to either a punishment or reward (as described above). Unlike intrinsic motivation it is outside of our own control.
Other examples of extrinsic motivation include:
- reading a book on something you’re not interested in because for example you will fail an exam if you don’t
- taking part in a sport because you have to rather than want to for example signing up to a charity run because you’re friends persuaded you to, even though you hate running
- writing because you have to for example, completing a report because your boss told you to
While we will respond to external motivational factors they don’t create the depth of drive and commitment that internal influences do. In fact research has shown that there is a risk of extrinsic motivations tipping from being motivational to being de-motivational. We, as humans like to feel a sense of autonomy and when external motivations feel forced or out of our control they can put us off. Think of a child who doesn’t want to do their homework, offering them bribes may work in the short term but will lose their potency over time and may actually make the child respond even more stubbornly.
On the other hand external motivations used in the right way can be an incredibly positive and powerful tool. Using reward to engage someone in something that they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in can ultimately lead to intrinsic motivation that lasts a lifetime. This is especially key when it comes to learning. Personally the best example I have of this is my flip from disliking to enjoying classical music. When I was little I would literally spend entire car journeys with my fingers in my ears when my Dad played his ‘awful’ music, but when I was 13 we moved house and consequently I changed piano teacher. Unlike my previous piano teacher Mary was warm and engaging, I wanted to please her so when she encouraged and cajoled me (extrinsic motivation) into playing a repertoire of classical pieces I responded by giving it a go. To this day (while I listen to a whole spectrum of music) I find nothing more relaxing and absorbing than playing classical pieces on the piano (intrinsic motivation).
The big question is how do we know what extrinsic motivation is going to do? Will it turn someone against or engage them for life? There’s no easy answer and beyond a broadly defined set of rules it depends very much on the individual concerned. That’s why we still invest huge amounts of time, worry and effort into trying to work out how to engage a team full of different types of people in the workplace, why doctors so often pull their hair out over patients who simply wont stick to a change in lifestyle and why parents constantly worry about how to get their kids to try harder at school.
Neuroscience is addressing this area and already showing promising signs that we will soon be able to literally train our brain, tailoring our own levels of motivation toward a vast spectrum of situations. But until then, if we want to motivate ourselves we need to find what makes us tick deep downside and tap into that (easier said than done – that’s where psychologists come into play) and if you want to motivate someone else the safest bet is to offer praise. We are after all social creatures who crave the acceptance of those around us (so to all those lovely people who have said nice things about my blog, please don’t stop – I need it!)
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Marsden K.E. et al. (2015) Diminished neural responses predict enhanced intrinsic motivation and sensitivity to external incentive, Cognitive, Effective & Behavioural Neuroscience, 15, 276-286
Myers, D.G. (2010). Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules. New York: Worth Publishers.