The (Un)Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

My post yesterday got some interesting reaction, including a link to this video called “The surprising truth about what motivates us.” The video is by Dan Pink, a journalist (but not scientist) who seems to be trying the best he can to express scientific theories about motivation.

I don’t want to pick on Pink too much, so I’ll use an early howler in the video to discuss motivation a bit

We are not as endlessly manipulable and as predictable as you would think. There’s a whole set of unbelieably interesting studies — I want to give you two — that call into question this idea that if you reward something you get more of the behavior you want and if you punish something you get less of it.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and most of it I won’t bother to try. I don’t know who Pink came across who told him people are “endlessly manipulable,” but it was more likely to be a crazy person on the street than a scientist or economist. A “reward” is often defined as a stimulus that leads to an increase in the targeted behavior, so if the “reward” does not lead to more of a behavior, it’s not a reward.

But I’ll forgive Pink for these, as the first statement just leads up to the video, and the second may be the result of terminological confusion. But the idea that a “reward” does not always leads to an increase in a behavior is painfully well known. Even the great behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, would have said that idea is stupid.

In behaviorism, animals have “drives” caused by their species-nature which they attempt to satiate through the accusition of appropriate stimuli. For instance, most species have some drive for hydration. An ant, a dog, and a human will all attempt to inbibe water in some method. But when an animal is no longer thirsty, the “reward” of water is satiated, and the animal will continue on with other drives.

Likewise, “rational choice” economics teaches that humans are driven in the persuit of well-being, and that money, leisure, social status, and other stimuli serve to satiate that drive, based on an individual’s pre-existing “preference schedule.”

But I don’t want to spend time demonstrating that Pink is completely wrong from every seriously held perspective. It’s more interesting to try to find common ground with him, and illustrate how many is important even though it is not the primary motivation for most people.

Most people are motivated to do what they are good at. Specifically, most people have a variety of goals they would like to achieve. To be powerful, popular, and respected might be three of these goals, though there are many more. Likewise, an individual has some understanding of what is required to actually achieve those goals at the given instant. Motivation can be reliable predictable in a wide variety of domains by an indiviuals’ belief, really and right now, that he can actually achieve the specific set of goals required to meet a desired objective. (This concept is referred to as self-efficacy.)

Consider the case of a man who has two objectives: he wishes to stay healthy, and he wishes to be comfortable. But this man has diabetes, and whlie he loves to eat bread, he knows the effect of bread on his insulin levels is dangerous. I don’t believe that individuals are purely driven by the calculated net present value of eating bread v. not eating bread. Rather, without the self-efficacy to avoid unhealthy foods, the individuals’ more base desire to satiate himself on bread will win.

So how would we increase self-efficacy in this case? Clinically, we would conduct a task analysis to understand what is required to really & right now maintain healike

Goal: Stay Healthy
Required Step: Recognize situations in which will-power will be limitd
Required Step: Understand socially acceptable methods of extracting oneself from temptation
Required Step: Execute pro-active steps to satiation hunger drive using less unhealthy substities


An understanding of self-efficacy allows us to understand how economic incentives work on individuals who are not “motivated by money.”

Consider a kind-hearted individuals who has several goals, such as to look-after his family, to labor in a field which is helpful to others, and to make a difference to people he has never met. Even if subject is completely non-materialistic, all of these goals are made easier through higher income. Of course, other things also make these goals easier, and in creating a reward schedule one has to be careful not to impose costs higher than the benefits of an increase in income. No one is stupid enough to believe that an increase in income always by itself leads to an increase in targetted behavior. But it is equally wrong to say that ‘good’ people are not motivated by income, or that the fact that other things can also improve self-efficacy means that financial compensation is not a part of a reasonable reward schedule.

In America, to wrap this up, we do not have a professional teaching cohort. Way too many teachers either washed out of either majors for that to be the case. Rather, we have the remnants of a professional cohort intermixed with the labor force you get when you underpay and mistreat a once-admired (if still somewhat respected) profession.

If we are serious about having students educatd by teaching professionals, we need to treat them like professionals, which includes paying them like professionals.

If we are not serious about that, we need to make idiot-proof scripts that an even-teacher teaching cohort can read during classtime.