Dan Pink’s “true fact” of incentives

The following is a reflection on “Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation“.

I’ve never been a fan of offering students rewards to incentivize their study. Whether it be stickers, bonus points or fast food, rewards are likely to work against the broader goal of developing a deeper interest in learning. Up to a certain point, learning does require simple memorization. But to do anything worthwhile with what’s memorized, higher-order thinking is required.

Given that certain activities require an amount of cognitive gymnastics, it’s really not so “surprising” that offering well-intentioned goodies can often sabotage the goal. The reason I’d argue, is that to critically think, create, and produce innovative results requires a clear mind in order to maximize results. But as soon as a carrot is dangled, the purpose of the reward must occupy a part of the incentivized mind (if it doesn’t, then what is its purpose?). This occupation however, requires mental energy that could otherwise be invested toward the goal. The occupation therefore, fragments thought and wastes resources.

Of course, a degree of desire must be present to achieve anything. A clear but unintentional mind won’t get very far. But as Pink notes, the best motivation for certain tasks comes from within. That is, the motivation must be intrinsic. Intrinsic motivation actually supports tasks requiring rudimentary thinking and beyond. So why doesn’t intrinsic motivation waste energy like its extrinsic counterpart? I think one key attribute of intrinsic motivation is that the motivator itself is naturally forgotten (or integrated) with the task at hand. For instance, it doesn’t take energy to deal with one’s joy or a a sense of purpose. In fact, there’s no need as such motivation comes without contradiction. That is, the motive goes hand-in-hand with the activity. The thought of a bag of candy or bonus on one’s pay-check however, must be suppressed while trying to accomplish the goal those very rewards were created for. That suppression is the saboteur.

So what have I learned? Honestly, my bias has always shunned the extrinsic approach. In fact, probably to the extreme. As Pink points out, there are tasks where reward systems help improve performance. What I need to do is properly identify those instances and remind myself that sometimes it’s OK (and maybe even desirable) to take a more robotic approach.

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