What We Can Learn about Motivation from Monkeys

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Competence: The Third Psychological Need in the Workplace

In the previous blog, The Motivational Trifecta, I introduced the first two psychological needs: autonomy and relatedness – each requiring a delicate balance. The third psychological need people want satisfied is a feeling of competence. As human beings, we are motivated to master tasks and learn new things. Mastery and learning top the chart when I coach executives to uncover their sources of satisfaction at work and then to develop interests outside of work that provide the same level of satisfaction.


“Competence is our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It is demonstrating skill over time. It is feeling a sense of growth and flourishing.” ~ Susan Fowler.

Monkeys Enjoy Solving Puzzles – Why?

In 1949, psychologist Harry Harlow placed puzzles in monkeys’ cages and was surprised to find that the primates successfully solved the puzzles. Harlow saw no logical reason for them to do so. What motivated them? The answer is threefold:

  • The monkeys’ survival didn’t depend on solving the puzzles.
  • They didn’t receive any rewards, nor avoid any punishments, for their work.
  • They solved the puzzles because they had a desire to do so.

I would also suggest that they had a safe supportive environment in which to grapple and grow, a key to peak performance.


Harlow offered a novel theory: “The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.” That is, the monkeys performed because they found solving the puzzles gratifying. They enjoyed it. Joy served as its own reward.

Further experiments found that offering external rewards to solve these puzzles didn’t improve performance. In fact, rewards disrupted task completion. Based on my own personal experience, I’m not surprised. When focusing on a penmanship award in grade 4 and 5, I was not only distracted by the reward, but also by the stress and fear of losing my “best-penmanship” status.

Harlow’s experiments led him to identify a third motivational drive:

  • The first drive is survival. We drink, eat, and copulate to ensure our survival.
  • The second drive is to seek rewards and avoid punishment (carrot-and-stick).
  • The third drive is intrinsic: to achieve internal satisfaction (self-direction).

Did I gain internal satisfaction from improving my penmanship? Yes! Being left-handed, I was motivated by the challenge and satisfied with the outcome. But, was there a cost? Were my overall personal development and performance behaviours affected by conditioning to seek external rewards and the fear associated with loss of status and punishment of peer humiliation? Most definitely! Like many, I have experienced performance anxiety that has been crippling at times, demotivating, and threatening to my self-regard.

Trying to motivate people with the promise of rewards or fear of loss or punishment (expressed or implied) simply doesn’t work.

What do you think about this?

  1. What are your challenges with motivation?
  2. What current incentive and reward practices need to be evaluated?
  3. What are the costs of your current incentive and reward practices – financial and human performance?

The conversation about motivation continues in the next blog post:

  1. What Motivates People
  2. The Power of Self-Determination to Motivate

I would love to hear from you. Tell me about the challenges and successes you have with building capacity and capability for a great workplace and great profits. Your comments are welcome.

You can contact me at patricia@maestroquality.com, at 905-858-7566, on LinkedIn, on Maestro’s Facebook page, or follow me on Twitter.

Books and Audiobooks:

Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging, Susan Fowler.

Also available in Kindle Edition, on iTunes (audiobook), and in iBooks

Link to Motivation Series Blogs

What is Flow and How is Flow Created? - We are Most Productive and Satisfied in the State of Flow
Boost Employee Commitment with Motivational Outlook Conversations
Motivate without Micromanaging - Eliminate Mindless Compliance and Conformity
Puzzles Motivate Monkeys. What Motivates People? – The Power of Self-Determination 
What We can Learn about Motivation from Monkeys – The Psychological Need for Competence
The Motivational Trifecta - Goldilocks Management: Just the Right Amount
Motivate without Over-Managing - This isn’t the 20th Century Workplace

Related Blogs:

Providing Conditions for Peak Performance
5 Steps to Build Peak Performance – Step 4. Grapple and Grow