Let’s backtrack a little. Sometimes external motivators can be helpful. For instance, rewards can get people to engage in behaviors that they wouldn’t otherwise choose, i.e. boring or tedious activities, tasks that have no inherent reward but may be important or necessary, like getting paperwork done. With enough repetition, sometimes these behaviors can be sustained, even when the rewards or threats are removed. Sometimes. External motivators can also get people to work faster, but this benefit is limited to activities where people are already proficient at the task. When creative thinking or problem solving is required, offering rewards actually might slow us down. Dan Pink has a popular TED talk about how these problems affect the business world. On occasion, external motivators might get someone to try a new activity that they would then continue based on enjoyment of the activity itself, but this could go either way in that some people would only continue based on the availability of incentives. This is the well-meaning idea behind school programs that reward students for reading books. The problem here is that even in these examples of successful application of external motivation, the challenge is always one of sustainability. What happens if the external motivators stop? Will the rewards or punishments keep coming? What happens when a person stops responding to them? A follow up question to ask would be this – even if these strategies are effective, at what cost? Here’s three potential negative outcomes to consider:

1) They encourage cautious behavior with overemphasis on generic goals – either get the reward or avoid the punishment, minimizing the specifics of context. As a result of this risk aversion and over-focus on outcomes, there are secondary costs to personal growth, creativity, and opportunities for happiness. Carol Dweck has done several studies that show when children are given praise for their “smartness” as opposed to their effort, that after they’ve been challenged with failure, they are more likely to choose simpler or easier tasks as opposed to challenging ones, hoping to get the self-reinforcing praise again. Diverse research has shown that when incentives are offered for tasks that require creative thinking, the end result is less creative (Amabile 1985), or that the ability to complete the task was stifled (Garbarino 1975, also see Dan Pink link above). Brene Brown’s TED talk about the power of vulnerability summarizes her research on the value of taking risks. What she found as the common link in the life narratives of hundreds of people she interviewed, was the powerful influence of periods of vulnerability – seen as being a necessary and crucial turning point in their lives as they described how they achieved success, growth, found healing, happiness or love. She also found that in these same moments of vulnerability, taking the cautious route often reinforced chronic misery.

2) They diminish or extinguish the inherent positive feelings associated with activities. If you’ve ever watched young kids playing organized sports you might witness this familiar scene. One of the team’s best players looks to the sidelines towards his parents cautiously after each made basket. They are very positive towards him, and when he sees them cheering or giving him the thumbs up, he smiles – but not before. If they are temporarily distracted, harmlessly talking to other parents or checking their phone, he hangs his head. If you’ve seen something like this, it’s hard not to feel bad for the kid, because even though he’s really good, is helping his team, and otherwise enjoys playing basketball – he doesn’t allow himself to fully enjoy himself without first checking in and waiting for his parents’ recognition, praise, or approval. And again, this is without any ill intent on the part of his family who are really warm and attentive to him. It’s a subtle but very real unfortunate outcome when praise is doled out too readily or excessively. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but we’ve also probably witnessed the more obvious ways in which an overly critical parent can cause a kid to lose interest in certain activities altogether. Another way to look at this phenomena is demonstrated in a study that showed when kids were given two step instructions, both involving activities that they would otherwise enjoy, the first step was seen as less enjoyable when viewed as a prerequisite for the other (Lepper 1982). In other words, when activities are seen as a means to an end, they become less enjoyable.

3) They decrease our sense of autonomy and control. Sometimes we become aware of the inherent manipulation that comes from certain rewards or threats, and correctly defend against these influences. But this awareness also illustrates the built in problem with these strategies, in that they conflict with our sense of free will. This insight does explain why in certain situations rewards do not negatively impact behavior or interest, usually because the reward is not seen by the individual as interfering with their own motivation or sense of control. On the other hand, once we feel this conflict, that’s when these strategies break down in various ways – they require greater rewards, more threatening threats, or they just stop working. I just had a conversation with a physician friend of mine who described the difficulty his organization was having in fully staffing their clinics due to the unexpectedly large influx of newly insured patients from the Affordable Care Act. Though they are working on hiring more physicians, their intermediate strategy has been to give generous raises to all the current physicians in the group to try and keep people happy and engaged, despite the increased demands on their time and workload. However, he along with many of his colleagues would rather determine their own happiness through work-life balance than be mollified through a financial incentive to work harder. And not surprisingly, they are also enjoying their work less.

Research by Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan supports many of these principles, as they’ve studied intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for decades, summarizing their ideas through a concept called Self-Determination Theory. In addition to what we’ve covered here regarding the negative effects of external motivation strategies, they’ve also researched the benefits of strategies that reinforce internal motivation. Through their research, they’ve supported a model for health and wellbeing, based on the ability to satisfy three universal human needs: autonomy, competency, and psychological relatedness (a need for social connection). Interconnected and overlapping Self-Determination Theory is another research based model for health and wellbeing – the concept of PERMA, supported by the work of Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman. What is PERMA? Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaningfulness, and Accomplishment. Positive emotion, engagement, and meaningfulness are the three subtypes of “happiness,” which are feelings tied to intrinsic rewards and internal motivation. In my previous post How To Be PERMANENT-ly Healthy I added that in addition to PERMA, Needs, Emotional Efficacy, Newness, and Truthfulness are the forces that guide us towards these wellbeing goals in sustainable and authentic ways. Hopefully you’re seeing how this motivational picture is coming together from all angles, as needs and feelings (the work of Abraham Maslow and Marshall Rosenberg) are also integrated.

In part 5, the conclusion to this series on our motivation, we’ll drive this final point home – that not only is internal motivation better than external motivation from the standpoint of effectiveness and sustainability, but most importantly, its true value is in its contribution to our overall health.

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