Grey Area of Motivation, Alas

Looking through old drafts, I came across a long essay on motivation. The essay was the result of a research project I did several years ago. You don’t get to see it; it’s moment has passed. Nevertheless, motivation fascinates me as a subject matter. It’s complex, reaches into conundrums of meta-psychology, and remains a mildly controversial subject as a matter of research. As for the latter, motivation has long been one of the most written-about subjects in industrial and management psychology.

When I did my research, itself based in a partial literature review, I was drawn to the fundamental challenge for researchers studying a human phenomena where the dividing line between internal and external seems to go through linked developments: first is the external task–including the environment; second is the responsive internal activity; third is the responsive, now altered, externality–including the environment; fourth is the end result for the primary agent.

Asks the question: what is the status of the agent’s intentionality (each ‘step’ of the way?) Motivation begs some questions about attribution too.

Here’s another schema I discovered (somewhere!) that could be used to ontologically evaluate the answer to the question.

At the time of my original study, what I was gripped by was the difficulty of sorting out the nature of extrinsic motivation if the simple conception of intrinsic motivation was abandoned. This came up because this simple conception–defined as the agent being motivated to do a task for nothing more than the internal reward provided by doing the task–is sometimes abandoned when motivational theories are reconfigured to be the foundation of, for example, managerial practice. Then there are practices, many of which are informally derived and normative, which aren’t informed by anything more than ‘folk psychological’ sensemaking and hunches.

I found the following illustrative diagram.

In a reflexive, phenomenological exercise, I identified what for me are the ecological features of my being intrinsically motivated.


The primary feature is my doing something I enjoy doing. The secondary features are, one, to have little prospect of being disrupted; tqo, to have effective control over how my ‘doing’ unfolds to its product. When I sit down to assemble and mix a recording, I do so because I’ve cleared the decks and am enthusiastic about immersing myself in the task. When I trot out to left field, I give up control over the over-arching temporal structure, yet, I enjoy standing out there waiting for something to happen.

(I conceived novel and robust definition of intrinsic motivation based in praxis. One is intrinsically motivated when, through an application of prior experience to self-directed performance, the positive affectual payoff is persistent through the course of this performance.)

This is in contrast to the idea, every task may be intrinsically motivating. That there exists a vast practical literature focused on setting the conditions for intrinsic motivation while dancing around, if not pushing to the side, the primary imperative, is unreasonable. Yet, it seems clear why this is so.

The informal idea, self-motivation, is conflated with it’s idealized conception, intrinsic motivation. What commonly drops away from this conflation is the essential element of intrinsic motivation: the pleasure the agent derives from their experiencing doing something for its own sake. From this erasure, the practical, applied, consideration becomes ‘how to intrinsically motivate’ student; employee; team member. Obviously, as a motivator, one can’t avail themselves at such point of the simple answer–giving the subject something to do that he or she simply enjoys doing for the sake of doing it; it’s been banished!

It’s worth noting that here I’m speaking of informal heuristics or applications. Present day theories of motivation read as researchers reaching out to different parts of the elephant. To extract from this research a practical, applied, theory of motivation wold be to integrate their different insights. (In fact, this is where the research is at, today.) This is a matter of synthesizing insights that are located between social and cognitive psychology, yet, adept evidence-based psychologists do not end up managing, for example, workers or students. So, we end with the common challenge: practice is only informed to some degree by such insights. And, actual practice may in many instances disavow crucial insights.

It seems to me the principal practical challenge of supporting motivation–for example, in the workplace, is reinforcing people being motivated to perform tasks which are not either, in any way, or largely, intrinsically motivating.


Steven Riess, emeritus professor of psychology, Ohio State, “But there is no real evidence that intrinsic motivation even exists.”

Reiss has developed and tested a theory of motivation that states there are 16 basic desires that guide nearly all meaningful behavior, including power, independence, curiosity, and acceptance. Whether you agree there are 16 desires or not, he said there is not any way to reduce all of these desires to just two types.

In addition to trying to fit all motivations into two types, Reiss said proponents of intrinsic motivation are also making value judgments by saying some types of motivation are better than others.

“For example, some people have said that wealth and materialism lead to inferior quality happiness, but there is no real proof of that,” he said.

“Individuals differ enormously in what makes them happy – for some competition, winning and wealth are the greatest sources of happiness, but for others, feeling competent or socializing may be more satisfying. The point is that you can’t say some motivations, like money, are inherently inferior.”

Although, it’s easy to falsify Riess’s central assertion, he’s onto something in both identifying how problematic is the blunt bifurcation of extrinsic/intrinsic, and, how arbitrary is the purported primacy of intrinsic motivation.

Riess authored Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Action and Define Our Personalities.

Be Sociable, Share!
This entry was posted in folk psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *