How can extrinsic motivation sometimes kill intrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is fueled by goals. These are usually set and quantifiable. Something that can be measured; Run a faster time, sell more this quarter, get all A's this semester. They are also usually followed by rewards or punishments whether or not the goal is met. This is how much of our life is run. Many of our parents would give us money for good grades in school. This follows over into real life as well. Many jobs reward bonuses based on performance. Meet your goal and get a bonus, fail to meet it and you may be reprimanded. Depending on the task, Extrinsic motivation can be extremely helpful and well, motivating. However sometimes, not only is it not effective, it can be damaging to performance.

This fully depends on what the task is. Tasks can also be broken down into two main categories. There are algorithmic and heuristic tasks.

The former involve following a set of instructions. Followed step by step, the task will be completed without much critical thinking or problem solving. The task will rarely change.

The latter involves creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. An example of an algorithmic task would be bagging groceries or washing dishes. Each go step by step through a set of instructions. They do not require much critical thinking or problem solving. Heuristic examples would be solving a complicated math problem or coming up with a design for a company logo. There may be certain guidelines to follow, but still involves critical thinking and problem solving.

Extrinsic motivators will increase productivity in algorithmic tasks, but will not help, and can even decrease productivity in heuristic tasks. The reason why is that short term goals and subsequent rewards and punishment tend to narrow thinking. With algorithmic tasks this is fine; critical thinking is not really needed and can lead to a quicker completion. However narrowed thinking during a heuristic task can shut out the mind from outside the box ideas that may help in coming up with the best solution.

This is shown in a study conducted in the 1960's by psychologist Sam Glucksberg. Participants were provided a candle, a small cardboard box, tacks, and a book of matches on a desk next to a wall. They were told they must figure out a way to attach the candle to the wall and light it in a way that it doesn't drip wax onto the desk.


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