Does your career satisfaction depend on rewards controlled by others? Or are they in some sense “intrinsic” to your work, like the transcendent pleasures Mozart presumably experienced as inseparable from the jotted, hummed or fingered flow of notes that elevated his spirits, if not always his material fortunes?

Does it matter which they are or to what degree your rewards are one or the other, even though “intrinsic” sounds better? (But why does it?–A question explored below.)

Much of the time, Mozart probably enjoyed a reward so sublime and inherent in his music that, paid or not, praised or ignored, he found the process immensely satisfying—without denying that cash and media splash would have made it all the sweeter.

Even though we may not be sure why, we instinctively like that image and concept of intrinsic motivation to achieve intrinsic rewards. But before we get carried away by it, it will pay to pause and ask a few questions:

  1. What does or should “intrinsic motivation” or “intrinsic reward” really mean?
  2. Why is it such a big deal in connection with our work?
  3. Is it overrated?
  4. What’s your personal ratio of intrinsic to extrinsic motivation and rewards, and how much does it matter?

Some Defining Diagnostics

You don’t have to be a Mozart to run a diagnostic test of your personal reward schemes—tests that can reveal the essence of intrinsic reward and motivation: Imagine that you’ve done your job—whatever it is—perfectly, but are not rewarded for it as expected or hoped, e.g., not paid or not praised as anticipated or desired.

If that frustrates you, those rewards are extrinsically motivated and defined, and the withholding of these can blunt any intrinsic satisfactions that otherwise might have been experienced in tandem. Mechanically flipping burgers can be like that.

A variation on this test is to imagine doing your job perfectly and not deriving any personal satisfaction from it. In that case, too, the job rewards are virtually certain to be extrinsic, e.g., just the paycheck, which, by definition, suggests that the motivation for doing the job is also extrinsic.

It may be that the job represents a poor skills-challenge match, in being too easy, so that “perfection” means nothing and achieving it affords no satisfaction other than getting paid for it or making others who benefit from it happy—this latter reward being, despite its “spiritual” appearance, an extrinsic reward, inasmuch as the customer may take your perfect burger for granted and as nothing special.

Because the reward is not assured by the perfect performance, it is extrinsic.

Above all, the problem with extrinsic rewards and their associated extrinsic motivation is that they compromise the kind of iconic, legendary self-reliance and individualism at the surface of your American self-image (if you are American).

That’s because extrinsic motivation, in being externally rewarded, is vulnerable to a cut-off, or at least unpredictability, unlike the assured rewards of intrinsically motivated behaviors. In simplest terms, extrinsic motivation is incompatible with the American ideal of self-sufficiency.

The Intrinsically Heroic, Intrinsically Motivated All-American

One Silicon Valley titan loves his work because it’s making him obscenely and insanely wealthy; another exults in his heroic triumphs over self-created and other daunting challenges, while a third is pleased to connect and enrich the lives of countless millions of grateful people. A fourth is a tinkering techie who delights in rewiring things.

Which of these four all-American culture heroes most closely embodies that venerable American ideal of independent individualism?

True, the first one spells “success”–another core American value; the second represents “triumph of the underdog” or of “dogged determination”–yet another American core value. The third also has its place in the American pantheon of heroes: the noble altruist.

Yet it is only the fourth who genuinely qualifies as intrinsically motivated and intrinsically rewarded: performing the job is the reward, independently of anything or anyone else, except the job resources, assuming the job goes well.

From this perspective, there are a number of reasons why the intrinsic satisfactions of the intrinsic motivation to, paint, tinker with motherboards, or compose music for the “sheer enjoyment” of it are believed to be better than any extrinsic motivation to do so for extrinsic rewards, e.g., to do it for the fame, women or wealth it will bring:

  1. Intrinsic rewards, unlike extrinsic rewards, are guaranteed by perfect performance.
  2. They depend only on individual effort applied to and with the right resources.
  3. They are therefore more stable and predictable than extrinsic rewards.
  4. They make the work process self-validating.
  5. Intrinsic rewards cost employers less. Since no inducements other than the opportunity to perform are required.
  6. They are immune to manipulation, maneuvers and pressure from others.

It must be noted that the applicability of the distinction between these two types of reward and motivation is supposedly universal—i.e., is not limited to high-profile careers of biz titans and Picassos.

Your job too, whatever it is, is presumably analyzable in terms of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and motivation (conceived as distinct from each other, even where coexisting), often for the purpose of determining the priority each deserves, in terms of its goodness of personal moral, professional and psychological fit; the stability of the motivation and rewards; the ideal ratio of these kinds of rewards; and the important consequences for career, society and the cosmos.

Besides, in doing anything for anyone’s or anything’s sake suggests there is some satisfaction (not necessarily or even usually “selfish”) in doing so—i.e., some reward, noble or otherwise.

So, any attempt to distinguish “intrinsic motivation” from “extrinsic motivation” by claiming only the latter involves sought or enjoyed rewards should not be taken seriously.

I prefer a different approach, which allows that we can be intrinsically motivated, while seeking or enjoying certain rewards intrinsically associated with that behavior. To make the case for this, I must, of course, offer some defensible concept of “intrinsic rewards”.

As I see it, an intrinsic reward is one that is experientially—sensually, emotionally, intellectually, volitionally and perceptually—inseparable in general, or for a given person, from the behavior or experiences that behavior generates.

For example, choosing to relax on a thick shaggy carpet in front of a cozy, bright, warm fireplace can be considered to be intrinsically motivated in the sense that the reward of suffusing pleasure is inseparable from the behavior of positioning oneself there (assuming normal circumstances, e.g., absence of a migraine headache).

So, I want to say that that behavior is intrinsically motivated because it is in pursuit of an intrinsic reward. Note that altruistic behavior, e.g., the work of a Mother Theresa, is not automatically intrinsically motivated nor without external rewards, such as the pleasure of seeing some good done or the gratitude of those benefited.

On the other hand, if one is being paid to do exactly the same thing and sit beside a cozy fireplace, but as a professional model being photographed for a fireside whiskey ad, an extrinsic motivation and extrinsic reward have been injected into the behavior, viz., money, as a separable dimension.

This does not mean that the extrinsic motivation and rewards swamp their intrinsic counterparts or completely displace them. Not at all.

The Question of What It Means

While assessing the merits of intrinsic rewards and motivation vis-a-vis their extrinsic counterparts, it is, as we’ve seen, absolutely essential to have some clear idea of what these culturally entrenched notions mean—if only because they seem to mean very different things to different interpreters of them.

For example, on some analyses intrinsic motivation involves “doing something for its own sake”, without regard for reward of any kind, as opposed to the reward-needy behaviors of someone extrinsically motivated.

I regard this unpacking of the concept as an incomprehensible complete non-starter, if only because it is nonsensical, given what we know about all behavior—namely, that it is always shaped, if not motivated by, reward and punishment.

I say “shaped” because we do things without motivation, e.g., trip and fall, yet learn from them as a result of the punishment (scraped knee, broken bones) or reward (elicit caring concern and sympathy), that makes the likelihood of repeat falls decrease or increase.

Either “doing something for its own sake” means “doing it just to do it” or “doing it for its own benefit”. The latter makes sense if we’re talking about a noble cause, e.g., participating in a democratic election just for the sake of maintaining or promoting democratic elections.

But the idea that the participation is utterly independent of any reward or reinforcement is ludicrous, since among the reasons for participation are the rewards of that participation.

As for the former interpretation, viz.,”doing it just to do it”, Nike style, it translates into “behavior is its own reward”, if interpreted in terms of conventional behavioral psychology. (Alternatively, it can mean the experience or awareness of one’s own behavior is the reward of that behavior, but not “the experience caused by one’s own behavior is its reward”…

Finally, it must be asked whether intrinsic motivation and intrinsic rewards are overrated. The commonsense answer is also the correct one: It depends. If you are a pop singer who genuinely derives intrinsic satisfaction from perfect performance, but who is also grossly overpaid for and loving it, any argument that intrinsic rewards are better will hardly seem compelling.

That’s because the ideals that intrinsic motivation represents and fosters are, in this case, offset by an equally, if not more entrenched American ideal, mentioned above.


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