ENGAGING EDUCATION » Applying Psychology

Some benefits to extrinsic motivation?

Just like how there are many benefits of having a growth mindset over a fixed mindset, there are many benefits of being intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically motivated. And I believe that intrinsic motivation is 10x better, healthier, and long-lasting than extrinsic motivation (along with a with a wide variety of psychological benefits over EM, as I reported in an earlier post.) So before I go any further, don’t get me wrong, intrinsic motivation is definitely the way to go! I think mostly everyone – progressives, traditionalists, and everyone in between – would agree with me here.

However, I would argue that, (unlike fixed mindsets,) there actually are a few benefits to being extrinsically motivated.  (Scandalous!) So, if we were to think of “good” as up, and “bad” as down, I present my IM/EM diagram on a tilt:

It’s like junk food. We all know it’s unhealthy for us, but there’s a reason why we make it, sell it, and eat it. For instance, we eat ice cream because it tastes good! If it didn’t taste good, no one would eat it! And in moderation, it’s okay, and it does provide life’s little pleasures. (hehe)

Anyways, here are some benefits to EM:

1. Fostering extrinsic motivation is often easier, less costly, and less time consuming than fostering intrinsic motivation. Especially if class sizes are huge. And students all used to it, so there’s not much to explain to them.

2. Here’s my theory about intrinsic motivation (IM) and extrinsic motivation (EM). Each person has a certain level of IM and EM, with respect to each task they encounter. IM and EM are 2 separate variables, so you can be “high in both”, “low in both”, “high in one, and low in the other”, or anywhere in between.

Each task also has a level of difficulty (or level of skill required). This determines the amount of total motivation you need to actually get up and do the task (I call it the “action threshold”)!If your combined level of IM and EM are higher than the threshold needed to turn motivation into action, you’ll do the action!

2 Examples

1) Bringing out the recycling bin each Wednesday evening. (TASK C) Your EM and IM could both be low for this (ie, you don’t really care about doing this, and you’re not feeling coerced to do it much either.) But the level of difficulty for that task is also really low, so you’ll most likely do it without much hesitation.

2) Writing an essay. Because (let’s say) the difficulty level is really high, you either need to love the topic (TASK A), feel forced to do it (TASK B), or some combination of the two.

The kicker

Here’s something I find ironic: on one hand, intrinsic motivation (IM) and extrinsic motivation (EM) are in a sense, polarizing. Cognitive evaluation theory says that if you give people external motivators, depending on how they’re perceived, they run the risk of decreasing IM. But on the other hand, it is the sum of IM and EM that determine whether action will be taken or not!

So, in a sense, EM and IM work against each other, and in a sense, they work together.

IM over Time

Like almost any other variable applied to human beings, IM (even for 1 given task) is never completely even and “smooth” over time. There will be variations, slight deviations up and down, as time goes on. For instance, you get a headache, so you don’t feel like working any more on that essay. Or your favourite TV show is on, so you’d rather be watching that instead.

And this is why EM is a “good” thing! Because external motivators get you to work even during those times when you don’t “feel like it,” but when it’s “good for you.” They “bridge the gaps” between those times when IM drops belwo the threshold.

This, of course, does not take away the value of choosing tasks that are IM, and in nurturing IM in students. Because the more IM you have, the less EM you need to “bridge the gaps” and to take action.

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