Intrinsic Motivation Redux

In a recent blog post, on a topic I was attempting to have some fun with, I received a very passionate comment that I felt warranted its own attention. I referred the comment to someone whom I am confident knows what the research supports. The following is his response; a debate that apparently resurfaces too often to mention. Thank you Andy, for providing us with the proven facts on this topic.

Guest Post by Dr. Andy Lattal The question of whether overt reinforcement of behavior undermines the reinforcing properties “inherent” in some activities, like children painting or adults exercising is subject of much research, popular writing, and debate. A recent comment on a previous post conjured up a “Groundhog Day all over again” feeling by revisiting the question of whether intrinsically motivated behavior trumps behavior maintained by direct reinforcement. The observations of the commentator, Kathy Sierra, warrant close scrutiny because of their substance and because she concludes that Dr. Daniels is being intellectually dishonest in asserting a point of view inconsistent with her own. In the comment, Ms.  Sierra authoritatively asserts that intrinsic motivation is “THE leading theory of motivation.”  The study of motivation is a broad area of study, making it all but impossible to reasonably make such an assertion. To claim that there is A leading theory, let alone to claim that such a theory is based on intrinsic motivation is  flatly wrong. Check out the journal Learning and Motivation, one of the leading outlets for experimental studies of motivation, and one finds few articles written in a given year devoted to intrinsic motivation. Or check out some of the other experimental psychology journals devoted to learning and motivation and make the same test. If it is the leading theory of motivation, it certainly is underrepresented among people who are the leading experts on the topic. I have to conclude that Ms. Sierra misunderstands the current status of motivational theory in psychology. I would also note that later in her comment that the hype is down and intrinsic motivation is down to being described as “part of the core set of theories dealing with motivation in psych right now,” I would say that still is not an accurate statement. Specifically Ms. Sierra  says “[intrinsic motivation theory] doesn’t displace Skinner and behaviorism, it adds another layer for what happens under a very specific subset of conditions.” 

The first assertion is correct, but the second is not. Intrinsic motivation does not add another layer to anything, except one of methodological confusion. There is convincing evidence, too extensive to be reviewed here, that the methods on which assertions of the superiority of so-called intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation are based are flawed. She goes on to note that the “studies [of intrinsic motivation] have continued,” as if that adds credibility to them. It does not. ESP experiments “continue,” too.  As a behavioral scientist with considerable experience in the methods and findings of experimental studies of learning and motivation, I am convinced that intrinsic motivation belongs in the same category as snake oil. Another claim is that “Cameron’s meta-analysis was itself flawed and as such, not taken seriously in nearly all University psych programs today.”  Such hyperbole, really! What evidence is there for this outrageous observation? This meta-analysis was published in the American Psychologist, one of the world’s most prestigious and widely distributed psychological journals.

Every article published therein is subject to strict peer review, during which leading experts in the world on a particular topic scrutinize the research to determine whether it is sufficiently meritorious to warrant publication there. I am comfortable in asserting that it isn’t flawed. It was a carefully conducted, well-thought-out analysis that showed something that many people didn’t want to hear. Why should they? They have built their reputations and fortunes on having the data look one way, but a group of (probably) underpaid academics with an eye toward finding out what the truth is comes along and upsets their gravy train. What do you expect? Speaking of extrinsic reinforcement, people financially invested in another point of view are not going to be happy. Although it is clear there are competing views of intrinsic motivation, I find it unacceptable to state the disagreement with what the science of behavior shows through a series of weak, overstated assertions that simply are not true. Intellectual honesty is based on a knowledgeable assessment of the data, not on what we want to see as true. Two points on intellectual honesty.  First, to even imply that Dr. Daniels’ assessment is not intellectually honest and not based on his assessment of the data, is simply too ad hominem to be considered. Second, and ironically, it’s quite bold to visit Dr. Daniels' blog and call on him to stop denying what Ms. Sierra herself sees as the truth about intrinsic motivation, while strongly asserting that Dr. Daniels’ position is basically without merit.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.