Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Secret of Effective Motivation - Intrinsic vs instrumental

NY Times     THERE are two kinds of motive for engaging in any activity: internal and instrumental. If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do.

What mix of motives — internal or instrumental or both — is most conducive to success? You might suppose that a scientist motivated by a desire to discover facts and by a desire to achieve renown will do better work than a scientist motivated by just one of those desires. Surely two motives are better than one. But as we and our colleagues argue in a paper newly published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, instrumental motives are not always an asset and can actually be counterproductive to success.

We analyzed data drawn from 11,320 cadets in nine entering classes at the United States Military Academy at West Point, all of whom rated how much each of a set of motives influenced their decision to attend the academy. The motives included things like a desire to get a good job later in life (an instrumental motive) and a desire to be trained as a leader in the United States Army (an internal motive). [...]

Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military.

The implications of this finding are significant. Whenever a person performs a task well, there are typically both internal and instrumental consequences. A conscientious student learns (internal) and gets good grades (instrumental). A skilled doctor cures patients (internal) and makes a good living (instrumental). But just because activities can have both internal and instrumental consequences does not mean that the people who thrive in these activities have both internal and instrumental motives.

Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.[....]


  1. Thanks for sharing . This article answers a question put to me here why
    shouldn't we use both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators with kids'
    education. It would have been nice if
    the article shared the reasoning for this -
    they work in opposite directions , with extrinsic or instrumental
    motivation undermining long term interest , quality of work , intrinsic motivation etc

  2. An explanation - intrinsic
    motivation fosters intrinsic goals like competence , whereas extrinsic
    motivation fosters ' performance '
    goals which are more superficial
    and focused on the extrinsic goal

  3. this story explains the se'varah ' behind the findings

    Time To Learn
    A young but earnest Zen student approached his teacher, and asked the Zen Master: "If I work very hard and diligent how long will it take for me to find Zen." The Master thought about this, then replied, "Ten years." The student then said, "But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast -- How long then ?"
    Replied the Master, "Well, twenty years."
    "But, if I really, really work at it. How long then ?" asked the student.
    "Thirty years," replied the Master.
    "But, I do not understand," said the disappointed student. "At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that ?"
    Replied the Master," When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path."


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