Tuesday, October 18, 2011

No Such Thing As Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation doesn't exist.

So states Dr. Steven Reiss, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at The Ohio State University, author of several widely used psychological measures and nationally recognized research, and Executive Director of the World Society of Motivational Scientists and Professionals.

He illustrates his point in the post Why Extrinsic Motivation Doesn't Exist, at his Psychology Today featured blog Who We Are, with the example of walking to a restaurant to eat:

Suppose I am hungry and I walk to a nearby restaurant. My walking isn't motivated by an intrinsic need for exercise, but by its instrumental value for eating. Notice that in this example walking is motivational only because it leads to food. Walking isn't a new or different or distinct source or kind of motivation. In the example the need to eat motivates the entire chain of behavior. The motive is eating, and I eat for no reason other than that I am hungry.

Different intrinsic needs can motivate the same behavior. I can walk for exercise, or I can walk to go to a restaurant. I exercise for no reason other than that is what I want. I eat for no reason other than that is what I want. Two different intrinsic motives; no extrinsic motive.

Dr. Reiss explains further:

When I do something to get something else, ultimately I am seeking something of intrinsic value to me. Otherwise, I wouldn't do it. I go to work to support my family, and I value my family intrinsically. Some seek wealth so others will respect them, and they value their status intrinsically. In a means-ends chain of behavior, the end is intrinsically motivating, and it is the source of motivation for the means.  The motive for the means is the same as for the end; it is an error in logic to assume that means are motivated by a different kind of motivation (extrinsic motivation) than are ends (intrinsic motivation.)

Try to imagine a chain of purposive behaviors that do not ultimately lead to some intrinsically valued goal.  You can't do it because such a chain has nothing to motivate it and, thus, never occurs.   All behavior is motivated by an intrinsically valued goal.

According to Dr. Reiss, there is compelling scientific evidence that human motives do not divide neatly into intrinsic and extrinsic categories.  Rather, his work to build a taxonomy of human motives has identified at least 16 different kinds (described in his book The Normal Personality: A New Way of Thinking About People).  While these 16 motives are universal, the trick is that individuals prioritize them all differently.  No simplistic one-size-fits-all model, Reiss tells us, can explain a phenomenon as diverse and individually determined as human motivation.  And it certainly can't explain or solve all our employee performance challenges.

Which, for HR and reward professionals, should reinforce the importance of careful discovery and assessment of the context, circumstances and competing priorities - from the standpoint of individual workers as well as the organization - before devising and implementing reward programs.

Dr. Reiss, who was educated at Dartmouth College, Yale University and Harvard Medical School, presents an informed, science-based challenge to what he terms the "anti-materialism" viewpoint advocated by social psychologists such as Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.  He sums up his position in the following quote.

I think intrinsic motivation is at its best when used to promote freedom, including the freedom to pursue material rewards. I think undermining theory is at its worst when it implies support for freedom except when people choose materialism, capitalism, or values different from those of undermining theorists.

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Ann Bares is the Founder and Editor of the Compensation Café,  Author of Compensation Force and Managing Partner of Altura Consulting Group LLC, where she provides compensation consulting services to a wide range of client organizations.  She earned her M.B.A. at Northwestern University's Kellogg School and is a bookhound and aspiring cook in her spare time. 

Thanks to Ann Bares / Compensation Café


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