Some laws of behavioral physics


By Pr. Ilona Boniwell

Motivation is a peculiar little animal of the human psyche. The more you force it to come out of its hiding hole, the further it retreats. We try to call it back, teasing with pieces of cheese (presents, rewards or bonuses), and often get surprised to find that the cheese disappears together with the mouse.

This is because motivation defies the laws of behavioural physics. As long as the work task involves only mechanical skill, bonuses work as expected, meaning better pay – better performance. Putting it simply, for simple, straightforward tasks, the carrot is still a great solution. However, if the task calls even for rudimentary cognitive skills, the larger reward actually lowers the performance. Yes, you are reading this right – for complicated tasks that require creativity and conceptual thinking, money is not a motivator! This is not to say we should immediately stop paying everyone in the knowledge industry (money is important to take one’s mind off money worries), but as scary as this sounds, I AM saying, based on hundreds and thousands research studies carried out all over the world that the carrot solution is out-dated and no longer suited to the world of knowledge economy. The more emphasis an organisation places on salary and bonuses, the less we are likely to enjoy the work for its own sake.

Positive psychology has been able to deliver groundbreaking findings on the motivation processes, allowing us to better understand the process of a gradual change from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation through basic psychological needs satisfaction. Intrinsic and meaningful activities are rewarding and support happiness, whereas extrinsic activities drain us and lead to unhappiness. For instance, intrinsically motivated work or a work directed at a higher cause may be beneficial to a person even if he/she is working a reasonable amount of overtime hours; whereas a person doing a boring and meaningless work may be unhappy with his/her work-life balance even if the number of hours worked is very small.

So the only remaining question is HOW, how do I increase intrinsic motivation? Quite simply, actually – think of the 3 Cs – Choice, Competence and Connection. I am personally motivated when I consciously Choose what I do, when I get a feeling that I am good at something (i.e. Competent) and when my work allows me to Connect with others. How about yourself?

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