The genius of inner motivation

December 24, 2007

—Nina Pierpont, MD, PhD

Last time I described behaviorism, which is the molding of animal or human behavior by rewards and punishments.  The practice of behaviorism is so pervasive in our culture that it may seem startling to question it, but question it we must if we are to get to the root of some equally pervasive problems, like depression and addiction.

Behaviorism assumes that human beings are motivated from the outside rather than the inside.  It’s an industrial model of the human psyche, suggesting humans have to be set in motion by something external, like electricity for a machine.  The machine has no moving or motive force on its own—no motivation.  It is passive.

I suspect every reader has known the happiness of a baby, the willfulness of a toddler, and the imagination of a preschooler.  Young children are deeply socially connected.  They hang on your leg, copy everything you do, and cry when left alone to go to sleep.  Children are curious and interested in everything.  They get into mischief and run off.  They want to touch things and see how they act.  Children learn like sponges and figure things out.  As they grow, it is astonishing to hear what pops out of them which you didn’t think they knew, or never thought of yourself.

This is the baseline from which we start as people:  socially connected, embedded in families and extended family groups, curious, interested, full of imagination, and full of drive.  What else but drive gets a baby on his feet? Learning is as natural and biologically driven as breathing.  If it weren’t, no baby would learn to talk.

Children need guidance, but we can forget the notion that they are empty (or worse, bad) until adults pour knowledge or meaning into them, or that they need to be taught how to learn.

There are adverse circumstances, I will grant, that absorb so much of a child’s thinking that even by the tender age of five he is unable to pay attention to the world of school, or reacts fearfully to its intrusions.  These children need therapy, and attention to their home environment.

But most children arrive in kindergarten full of vigor and confidence.  Many adapt well and continue to enjoy school for some years.  Others come into immediate conflict with the school program, though they may have learned well and energetically for years at home.

Let me emphasize, however, that children are born intrinsically motivated, which means driven from the inside, especially into the satisfying relationships that will guide and mold their development.  Intrinsic motivation can persist and mature as people get older.  Healthy intrinsic motivation is very socially oriented.  We want to please and be pleased by the people close to us.  We want to share with them joy, discovery, and humor.  We share feelings of accomplishment and mastery, and the intrigue of new things.  We seek help with problems to solve and comfort for fear or woe.

Intrinsic motivation is a sense of interest in the thing itself.  It may be work or play, solitary or together, a toy or a tool.  There is something about the thing or the action that is beautiful, compelling, or satisfying.  It fits our own distinctive personalities and abilities.  Again, this is healthy intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation comes from the outside.  We don’t particularly want to do something, but out of seeming necessity or compulsion, we do it.  A child would rather stay up, but goes to bed because his parents make sure he does.  He tries vegetables in order to get a promised dessert.  Homework must be done or grades will be low, parents will be mad, and he might get grounded.  An adult dislikes his job, but goes because it pays better than other jobs.

Extrinsic motivators (such as rewards, punishments, praise, grades, and performance bonuses) have been shown in settings from schools to businesses to get people focused on the rewards and on the evaluation process, to the detriment of the interest they feel and the thought they put into the tasks for which they are being evaluated.  As the focus on extrinsic motivation goes up, the strength of intrinsic motivation goes down.

And what happens when a person has a void of intrinsic motivation?  I think several things.  One is a void of satisfaction, pleasure, and connectedness to other human beings, which is the feeling known as depression.  This feeling may intensify in mid adulthood, a time when a person’s real human affinities and distinctive interests tend to reassert themselves.  The second problem is the things that rush in to fill the void of intrinsic motivation—alcohol, drugs, early and inappropriate sex, violence as fun, gambling, compulsive buying, etc.  The addictions, in other words.

More on this next time.