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Dr. Laura Blog
Motivation from Inside
Motivation from Inside
(originally published March 31, 2010)

I get many calls from people wanting to know how to motivate someone else to do something (usually something they don’t want to do, like giving up smoking or getting more physically active). 

I recently came across an adorable and terrific study of about 51 kidlets between the ages of 3 and 4 who LOVE to draw (hang in there – there is a connection between the first paragraph and the results of this study):

Those conducting the study put the children in three groups.

  • The first group was told they would get a certificate with a gold seal and ribbon if they took part in the project.
  • The second group was just given crayons.
  • The third group was the same as the second group, but they were given a surprise reward.

Then they watched them draw independently for many days afterward (so they could check out the long-range effects of giving a reward.  What they found was fascinating:

  1. The kids who were told in advance about the reward put less effort into their drawings and their interest in drawing waned.
  2. The kids with no reward or a “surprise” reward kept their motivation steady and drew more than the first group.

Bottom line?  People tend to do things they enjoy and when they do so, they are motivated from within.  When a reward is thrown into the equation, the motivation from without diminishes the motivation from within, because the reward itself becomes the motivation, and getting it (even by cheating or lying) becomes the goal.  That’s why a lot of people don’t want to make money off their hobbies – they somehow recognize that if they have to do it, it will lose something in terms of the enjoyment of it.  Motivation decreases and the process becomes painful.  Play becomes “work” when we get paid.

Normally, we separate work from play, and we do expect a salary for that work.  But the things we simply enjoy need to stay in the realm of inner pleasure and motivation.  We don’t work as hard at something when we have to get the reward.  Our natural talent for self-regulation is upset and damaged when a reward system is put into place.

So, manipulations with reward may work very temporarily, but then they rob individuals of their own positive attitude about the activity.

Encouragement is always the better technique, i.e., finding something wonderful to say about the person’s activity (on a philosophical level):  “Hey, it’s amazing how you can get into such a ‘Zen’ place and create out of thin air!  That must feel wonderful!”

And as for the spouse situation with smoking, overeating, under-exercising, and not helping around the farm or house, try this:  “Honey, you looked so happy when you _________(e.g., didn’t grab for a cigarette).”  In other words, pick on one small half of an iota to feed back the pleasure concept.  Keep it small or short, and then they might want to self-regulate in order to get that good feeling for themselves by themselves.

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