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The Science of Motivation

In order to fully understand what science can teach us about motivation, we have to go all the way back to the 1930’s to Henry Vilas Zoological park where two psychologists, Abraham Maslow and Harry Harlow began studying monkeys.

The use of monkeys as research tools in brain science and psychology grew out of the similarity in the brain development of humans and primates.

At this point some psychologists believed there were only two main drives for human behaviour – the biological drive to survive and the need to seek rewards and avoid punishment.

While Maslow moved on from studying the monkeys, Harlow stayed.

Maslow, unlike other psychologists at the time, was interested in studying the positive qualities of people rather than the bad qualities and was often critical of people like Sigmund Freud for doing so.

In 1943 Maslow proposed his theory on human motivation stating that people had five human needs they needed to fulfil for psychological health.

The basic needs for survival followed by the higher needs for fulfilment, building on the basic drives that had already been explored.

While Maslow was working on his motivation theory, Harlow was still experimenting with monkeys and interestingly finding similarly that people have a higher need for satisfaction.

In 1949 he conducted an experiment with eight monkeys, placing them in a cage with a puzzle to see how they reacted. According to what they knew at the time about motivation, the monkeys would have no desire to solve the puzzles unless there was a reason to do so.

So they were surprised when almost immediately the monkeys were playing with the puzzles and had not long after figured out how to complete them.

Their survival didn’t depend on it and they were not being punished or rewarded in any way.

Harlow offered the following theory on why they completed the puzzle:

“The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.”

The monkeys performed because they found it gratifying to solve puzzles. They enjoyed it, and the joy of the task was its own reward. This lead Harlow to propose that there was a third drive in human motivation, which is an intrinsic drive – to achieve an internal feeling of satisfaction.

Further experiments found that offering external rewards to solve these puzzles didn’t improve performance and often disrupted the completion of the task.

Twenty years later, with no more work done on this theory, a young psychologist by the name of Edward Deci followed up on Harlow’s studies on intrinsic motivation and ran a series of experiments to see what happened to people’s performance when rewards were introduced.

What they found surprised many behavioural scientists at the time and backed up what Harlow had found twenty years earlier. In one experiment where they offered students cash prizes to solves puzzles, he found that once they had been offered a financial reward for completing the puzzles, their future motivation for them faded.

The results suggested that although financial rewards can offer short term motivation, the effect wears off and even worse, the rewards can reduce a person’s longer term interest and motivation for the task.

Deci proposed that human beings have an inherent tendency to seek out challenge, to explore, to learn. This drive, however, is more fragile than other drives and we have to carefully manage and tune into it if we are to get people intrinsically motivated and engaged at a higher level.

Years later in 1985 Edward Deci and another psychologist Richard Ryan developed what has proven to be one of the most influential and widely accepted theories of human motivation, they called it Self Determination Theory (SDT).

The theory states that human beings have three innate psychological needs that need fulfilling for optimal performance and motivation.

These needs are for the following:

Competence – The need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. Learning and using skills.

Relatedness – The need to interact, to connect with others and to experience caring.

Autonomy – A sense of control over our own lives, the need to feel we have choices.

Beyond the basic needs proposed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the similarities between the two theories is quite apparent.

There has been lots of fascinating research carried out in many different environments to test the effectiveness of STD. If we understand this research in its basic terms then we can use it to engage people at a higher level, ultimately maximising their performance by understanding what innately makes them tick.

Are you giving people the opportunities to constantly enhance their skills? And do you challenge them to use their skills more and more?

Have you created an environment of safety where people feel they can express themselves?

Do they feel like you ‘have their back’ or do you motivate by fear?

Do you allow people to have a degree of control and autonomy over what they do? Do you delegate and trust people to get the job done?

The more of these you implement, the more motivated and engaged your team will feel.

This is an excerpt from my book ‘How Leaders Make It Happen’.


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