Yesterday’s New York Times pointed out that many former jocks have trouble staying in shape once they’re no longer active in their sports.
One reason given is that people who participated on teams and in competition are used to extrinsic motivation—that is, they do it to win external rewards or avoid external punishments. When the outside force disappears, they stop exercising.
On the other hand, people who exercise as part of a commitment to health are intrinsically motivated—they do it for their own satisfaction, without outside incentives.
And today, the Wall Street Journal reported on “Pathways to Rewards,” an anti-poverty program that rewards people for actions like getting a job or updating prescriptions with “points” to cash in for DVD players, school supplies, etc. This program means to change people’s habits by giving them extrinsic rewards.
It’s better that people be intrinsically motivated to do things like pay their rent or exercise. So the question is: does giving people extrinsic motivation help them develop intrinsic motivation?
This is a tough issue. Getting rewarded for doing something changes people’s attitudes. If you pay people to do something, they often stop doing it for fun or on their own; being paid turns it into “work.” Parents, for example, are warned not to pay or reward children for reading—that teaches kids only to do it for pay.
On the other hand, a tangible reward can be a big boost, though maybe it only works to develop intrinsic motivation if the motive is already lurking there.
In high school, I wanted to redecorate my bedroom. I wrote a long proposal to my parents to lay out my case. My father answered, “Ok. But in return you have to do something—for twenty minutes at a time, four days a week.” Suspicious, I asked what I’d have to do, but he wouldn’t tell me. I had to take the deal or leave it. How bad could twenty minutes, four times a week, be? So I took the deal.
My father’s deal was that I had to spend that time running. He’d been a college tennis player who’d gone out of shape until he took up running—so he was a real believer.
I played sports in high school, but was such a terrible athlete that sports were boring and humiliating. Mostly I liked to lie around and read. I’d already half-heartedly tried to convince myself to start running, but just couldn’t work up the motivation. My father’s deal got me to commit to a regimen—and had an enormous impact. I realized that I liked exercising, I just didn’t like sports.
So in my case, extrinsic motivation did unleash intrinsic motivation.
Money is an extremely effective extrinsic motivator. I suspect that’s why the children of rich parents sometimes suffer from a lack of direction. Without the extrinsic motivation of needing to earn, they must rely on intrinsic motivation—and that’s much trickier.
In reading about Warren Buffett’s $31 billion gift, I was dumbstruck by the astonishing fact that NONE of Buffett’s three children graduated from COLLEGE. This would be a quite extraordinary…failure…for any ordinary middle-class family in Omaha.
I have to believe this was because their father was Warren Buffett. All that money, even before it added up to $44 billion, even with their father’s insistence that they shouldn’t count on getting his fortune, could be enough to mess up anyone’s motivation.