Real Life

Backchat: Deal or no deal

Why the carrot and stick form of motivation just doesn’t cut it any more.
Carrot and stick motivation

It has been particularly difficult to get started on writing this column. Not surprising, really. I’m lazy, and yet stupidly this month I’m supposed to be writing about motivation. Why ever did I choose that? (I just spent about an hour staring at blank page.) Right, where was I? Oh, that’s right. Motivation. I have remembered why I need to learn about this. The reason is that at home I have a problem. I have two children. They are aged 10 and seven. They are lovely. But my problem is I find it very difficult to motivate them to do the things I want them to do. I know probably every parent has this problem, but my children seem to be particularly intransigent.

They are delightful children. But they are not biddable or sensitive to rewards. They are pretty much unable to be bribed. The usual kind of ‘if/then’ approach – “if you eat your broccoli, then you can have an ice cream” – simply does not work. They would prefer to do their own thing. Autonomy is more precious to them than ice cream. Withholding privileges is a blunt instrument too. Sometimes they will give in if screen time is involved, but even then it is grudging, as even when it works I have grumpy compliant children rather than cheerful motivated ones.

It’s quite possible my children are outliers when it comes to being stubborn and non-compliant: “bloody minded”, their rebel grandfather would have said approvingly. But it also appears I might be doing this all wrong. I am apparently still stuck in the dark ages when it comes to understanding how motivation works.

Most of us believe the best way to motivate ourselves and others is with external rewards like money or ice cream – the carrot and stick approach. But it’s not true anymore, according to psychologist Daniel Pink. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he says we have not caught up with what science shows us about motivation. Sure, 50,000 years ago when we were roaming the savannah and running away from sabre-tooth tigers, external rewards were pretty damn salient. We just wanted to survive, so we were highly motivated by getting lunch and not being lunch. But life is more complex now.

We don’t just want merely to survive. For most of us, our baseline needs – food and shelter – are satisfied. So we want more. We are motivated by our intrinsic desires: “the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world”, as Pink describes it. That’s much more tricky.

Psychologist Tim Carey, who specialises in studying self-control, says things like praise, reinforcement, and punishment only work if you understand someone else’s goals. If you want praise from someone, they will be able to get you to behave in various ways by praising you when you do. Stickers work in schools because first we teach children stickers are great things to have, then, when we’ve got them wanting the stickers, we only give the stickers to them when they do the things we require. But this fragile relation-ship of manipulating circumstances to get people to behave in certain ways depends on a person’s goals.

When stickers don’t ‘work’ any more, what has happened is those people have changed their goals about wanting stickers. Perhaps, now, the goal to wind you up is more attractive than the goal to accumulate stickers. This makes sense to me, although my children never really got on board with star charts and all that. Most likely, I never taught them well enough that collecting stickers was a worthwhile goal. (To be honest, I thought stickers were a bit ‘meh’ too.) I’m not the only one who finds it harder to manipulate people with intrinsic motivation.

One study found that artworks created because they had been commissioned for money were less original and less creative than works done purely for the joy of creating. The old thinking depends on the notion work is not inherently enjoyable so we must coax people with external rewards and threaten them with outside punishment. But in this way, you can unwittingly turn something fun into drudgery.

If you reward someone for doing something enjoyable and then you stop rewarding them, they will invariably stop doing the activity, seeing it as tedious work. The thinking goes: if this was a fun thing to do, you wouldn’t have needed to reward me to do it, would you? This is why I was aghast at my children’s school making reading into a chore: something to be done in order to earn stickers (yes, more bloody stickers) and prizes.

Mainstream education is deeply entrenched in the old carrot and stick way of motivating students. This despite the fact up-to-date teachers must realise this is not the kind of motivation their students are probably going to need in their working life; in most careers they will need to be self-directed. That’s because what we do on the job can be divided into two categories – algorithmic and heuristic. An algorithmic task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. With a heuristic task there are no clear instructions so you have to experiment with possibilities and devise an original solution.

Working as a checkout operator is mostly algorithmic. Creating an advert-ising campaign is mostly heuristic. I imagine, like me, you would like your kids to be drawn towards non-routine work (it can’t be outsourced or automated). So the motivation they need is the tricky kind: intrinsic motivation. Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing my kids are not easily manipulated by carrots and sticks at home – since that’s not going to be what drives them out there in the world as adults. That is if they turn into healthy adults despite their lack of greens. I still wish I could get them to feel some intrinsic motivation to eat broccoli.

Words by: Deborah Hill Cone

Photo: Thinkstock

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