Motivation is a “part of popular culture as few other psychological concepts are”. Those are the words of Martin Maehr and Heather Meyer, spoken almost two decades ago. Since then the fervor to understand motivation has only increased. But for some perplexing reason, we still discuss motivation and our motives as though they’re a brand new topic.
We view motivation as a limited source of energy. We can’t start our list of errands or head to the gym because ‘we’re just not motivated’. But, this isn’t how motivation works. It comes from our motives, our reasons to change or act in the first place. Everything we do has a motive behind it, but we forget the importance when we aren’t focused. Even lounging around the house comes from our motivation to relaxation. When we need to work we don’t need divine intervention, we need better a better understanding of our reasons to act.
Our focus on motivation as an external source impinges it’s effectiveness. This external view is called extrinsic motivation and it’s only a fraction of what motivates us. Extrinsic motivators, like money and recognition, are reasons to act thrust on you by others. Whereas intrinsic motivation stems from the delight and fascination with the activity itself. Almost all the work you do involves a mix of each. But, unless you’re completely aware of the why behind your actions you might end up assuming things about yourself that aren’t true.
Intrinsic motivation is internal, long-lasting, and self-sustaining, but slow to develop. It’s also far more subjective. Depending on the context this can be a positive or negative. These characteristics support positive habits and make it a pain to drop negative ones. Extrinsic motivators are short-term, restricted, quick fixes with broad impact. They may undermine intrinsic motivation and often require rewards to increase over time.
Within either type of motivation are the incentive and aversive salience attention modifiers. These properties regulate the intensity of your behavior.
When we discuss motivation, we focus on positive incentives. We want to know what we get out of acting or behaving in a certain way. In psychology this is called incentive salience or approach behavior. the two factors, wanting and liking, compose incentive salience. The wanting factor determines our desire to consume or attain. It shifts our focus from simple objects or outcome to one that occupies our attention. The liking portion is the immediate pleasure we get after consumption.
Influenced by perceived value and required effort both factors can vary over short periods of time. As we work through decisions motivation fluctuates, sometimes rapidly, entirely in the unconscious.
Other times we use our conscious mind to figure out the best possible outcome. Like, how we want to unwind for the weekend.
You’re stressed, you decide your best option for Friday night is to kick back with a bottle of wine. Your first glass is fantastic. A preferred brand, you’ve been looking forward to all week, and the taste is exceptional. It’s possible you’re even more eager for the second glass than the first. But, once your second is empty you’ve got to decide just how deep into the bottle you want to go. After all you’ve got a hike in the morning and it’s been awhile since you drank. After a quick appraisal the third glass seems less appealing. It’s incentive salience has decreased and your aversion to another glass has increased. You decide to cork the bottle. Better safe than sorry.
Aversive salience, the impact of alcohol in our example, that caused avoidant behavior. We weren’t demotivated to drink another glass, we had legitimate reasons not to. The effects were associated with an undesirable outcome.
It’s difficult to account for all the factors that ultimately drive us towards action or inaction. It’s this lack of understanding around our motivations that make it tricky to deal with. Of course it’s hard to get up and go to the gym; your home is comfortable, you want to relax, and the gym doesn’t seem fun. Each of these are powerful motivators detracting from hard work, they’re averse and need to be recognized.
When we fail to understand our reasons to act we’re easily swayed. Our attention shifts from one salient distraction to the next until we’re finally reminded of our task. At that point, it’s impossible to tell if we’ll get back on track.
To detail what we know about motivations impact on behavior Dan Ariely designed an experiment focused on the importance of meaning. In his experiment participants built Bionicles that were subsequently taken apart for later use. For each Bionicle built, participants earned a small amount. Completing the first netted 3 dollars, the second $2.70, the third $2.40, and so on until they either gave up or the amount paid out reached zero. This was dubbed the meaningful experiment.
In the second condition participants built the same models but the experimenters reused them each time. If they agreed to build another they received a second, but if they decided to build a third for $2.40 they were given the initial model to reconstruct. This was called the sisyphic condition after the Greek myth of Sisyphus. Punished for his hubris and forced to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down as he neared the peak. This condition was meant to emulate Sisyphus and his unending, meaningless work.
In the meaningful condition individuals built 50 percent more models than the sisyphic. A staggering amount of effort for a small difference. These individuals weren’t changing the world or helping the impoverished, they played with toys for pocket change. There was no opportunity to ascribe meaning, but the differentiation mattered substantially.
In another version of the experiment nothing was built or paid for, participants only heard the description of each condition. They understood meaning is important. But, they underestimated the magnitude. They expected the meaningful condition to build 15 percent more, less than a third of the total amount.
Ariely didn’t stop with the first few experiments. He knew some participants were fond of Legos and wanted to understand how that would change their behavior. In the meaningful experiment attachment to Legos correlated with effort, but, in the sisyphic experiment, attachment was meaningless. In Ariely’s own words, “this manipulation of breaking things in front of people we basically crushed any joy they could get out of this activity. We… eliminated it.”
In his final experiment participants had intrinsic and extrinsic incentives, but a change in process sapped their motivation. What we perceive as motivating; joy, effort, and money, lose potency without meaning. Understand what your goals and actions mean to you before blindly chasing them.
Your motives decide the intensity and frequency surrounding your behaviors. If you want to stay motivated you need to understand what’s motivating you and what keeps you in place. Leverage this knowledge and make changes that facilitate your goals.
Motivation is Meaningless