Puzzles Motivate Monkeys. What Motivates People?

  • Average reading time: Approximately 4 minutes

In 1969, twenty years after Harlow’s experiments with primates, psychologist Edward Deci, now a professor at the University of Rochester, followed up with a series of experiments with humans. Deci’s experiments showed that students lost intrinsic interest in an activity when money was offered as an external reward. Drawing on my experience in the workplace, I am not surprised with the results and inspired by the validation.

In my previous blog What We Can Learn about Motivation from Monkeys, I shared my personal experience as a young student - my response to a reward program and the effects. With the “best penmanship” award, there was no money involved. However, there was a currency and reward possibly more powerful in my young mind than money: my status among my peers.

No doubt, rewards can deliver a short-term boost. However the effect wears off. Even worse, rewards can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation. I remember working so hard to retain “best-penmanship” status and being frustrated and stressed when caught off guard by a challenger (a fellow classmate). My focus, energy, and even my desire to do well in other projects suffered. So did my self-regard. The process undermined my sense of competence.

Self-determination theory: autonomy, competence and relatedness
Self-determination theory: autonomy, competence and relatedness

The Power of Self-Determination to Motivate

Deci and Richard Ryan later expanded on the earlier studies. Their Self-Determination Theory proposed three main intrinsic needs involved in self-determination, each of which is universal, innate, and psychological:

  • Autonomy
  • Competence
  • Relatedness

Deci proposed that human beings have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn. Unlike drives for thirst, food, and sex, these needs are never completely satisfied. Even after we attain degrees of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, we still want more.

Hence, trying to motivate people with the promise of rewards does not work. We could even assert that this default motivation tactic is insulting and degrading to the essence of being human. You cannot impose growth, learning, and meaning upon people; they must find it for themselves; they must find it within themselves. However, you can promote an environment that doesn’t undermine people’s sense of competence.

Ingredients of a Great Learning Environment

I was fortunate to have had a great learning environment through three formative years of my life (grades 4, 5, and 6). I had the same teacher for three years and minimal turnover of classmates. Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Sampson provided an environment that addressed our basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Our portable classroom provided intimacy that supported both autonomy and relatedness. As students, we had our competitions, but we were tight with and supportive of one another. Mr. Sampson provided challenging and fun opportunities to learn, master, feel competent, and enjoy our accomplishments as individuals, groups, and as a class.

Long before Deci and Ryan conducted their research, Mr. Sampson was a leader in the teaching profession, whether he knew it or not. I hope he did know. I sense that he was motivated by his own need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Although the “best-penmanship” award was not the most effective motivator, Mr. Sampson planted strong seeds of self-determination and self-motivation by addressing our psychological needs.

What do you think about this?

  1. How could you design your workplace to address your employees’ psychological needs?
  2. What processes may be undermining employees’ sense of competence?
  3. What would be the impact of consistent leadership and minimal turnover on your work environment and your profits?

The conversation about motivation continues in the next blog post:

  1. Motivating without Micromanaging: Eliminate Mindless Compliance and Conformity
  2. The Domino Effect: Positive Energy, Vitality, and Sense of Well-being in the Workplace.

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, or on Maestro’s Facebook page. 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:

What is Flow and How is Flow Created? - 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

Additional Resources:

Self-Determination Theory

Stay positive
Stay positive