The Mysteries of Intrinsic Motivation

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1949: Harry F. Harlow’s Rhesus Monkey Experiments & the 3rd Drive

A psychologist ran an experiment whose results were so startling — violating the current scientific paradigm to such a degree — that he put his results aside and abruptly moved in an entirely different direction. The experimenter was Harry F. Harlow; the year was 1949. His radical experiment was performed on 8 rhesus monkeys.

1969: Edward Deci, Rewards inhibit Intrinsic Motivation

Two decades later in the summer of 1969, Edward Deci took up the torch. In his initial foray into the field of behavior, he performed experiments that were designed to test the relative strength of the 3 types of drives. His findings indicated that this 3rd drive — intrinsic motivation — is more fragile than biological or environmental drives — the two extrinsic drives. It seems that intrinsic motivation needs the proper environment to survive and thrive. In the ensuing decades, researchers explored the parameters of this environment — investigating the factors that enhanced and detracted from the ability of this internal drive to produce solve problems.

Self-determination Theory & Autonomy

Since his early findings, Deci teamed up in 1977 with his graduate student, now colleague, Richard Ryan, who was inspired by Deci’s book Intrinsic Motivation. The two teamed up to develop what they call ‘self-determination theory’. SDT theory states that humans have 3 universal needs: competency, autonomy, and relatedness. When these needs are thwarted, productivity, motivation and happiness plummet. Hundreds of studies over the last 30 years have shown that when these needs are met that humans lead happier, more productive lives4.

Unanswered Questions

Let us consolidate our findings. Originally the scientific community believed that humans were motivated by either biological or environmental drives. However, the scientific literature overwhelmingly suggests that there is also a powerful 3rd drive motivating human behavior. It has been deemed intrinsic motivation. Tapping into this internal 3rd drive is a more powerful motivator for creative, problem solving tasks than employing external rewards and produces a better product. Experimentation reveals that autonomy, i.e. freedom of choice, is at the heart of intrinsic motivation. Humans who are motivated from internal sources tend to have a more sustainable, happy, productive life than those who are motivated by extrinsic factors, such as money. In essence: Intrinsic motivation is a basic human drive that is the root of psychological health and based in a need for freedom of choice.

Muse-driven: Quieting the Mind, Listening to my Little Voice & Following her Directive.

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