by Giancarlo Melini
There is a general -virtually axiomatic- belief that people’s motivation sense is based almost exclusively in punishment and reward. That assertive notion that humans are inherently unproductive and therefore need extrinsic motivation -carrot and stick- has prevailed since the beginnings of history. But, Is that so? Are we really beings with no internal drive to do things for ourselves, others or humanity? I don't believe so, and many mainstream economists, anthropologists and behavioral scientists too.
It is a dogmatic statement in our current socioeconomic paradigm that money makes the world go around. The only incentive people have to go to work, create something new, make the world a better place is the profit motive. People need money, therefore, they engage in creative activities so they can produce goods and services that other people are willing to purchase. If people cannot earn money from their labor, their creativity, their genius, they are simply not going to do anything. That notion is also the founding stone of the modern Intellectual Property system, which regards the lucrative mentality as the engine of prosperity. Lately -around a year ago- I began to strongly question this assertion, and started to research about what is it that really motivates humans to do things. Clearly it is not instinct alone, nor the so called “human nature”, because if that was the case we would only do activities to barely satisfy our most primal necessities, without trying to improve ourselves and our surroundings.
My research took me to Daniel Pink’s Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. His book is about how the mainstream economic establishment has been constructing for centuries -maybe even millennia- a social structure that bases production and creativity on the economic reward, and how this is wrong. The competition-profit incentive-based economic system not only doesn’t promote creativity and problem solving thinking, but it totally undermines it.
Here is how social scientists reached to that conclusion. They settled three experiments:
1) They called a group of MIT students and made them do a series of different tasks which involved solving puzzles, repetitive games, even physical challenges, etc. When evaluating the results, they observed a very strange phenomenon. When tasks were repetitive, menial, mechanic and didn't require much thinking, the reward did acted as an incentive. But as long as the task involved even rudimentary cognitive skills, the people offered higher prizes did worse. How could this be?
2) They replicated the experiment in India, but this time they settled three levels of prizes. The low reward: 2 week salary; the middle reward: 1 month salary; and the high reward: 2 month salary. This time results were a little bit different but still very surprising. People offered the low reward, did no better or worse than people offered the middle reward, but people offered the high reward did the worst. What kind of socialist conspiracy is this?
3) The candle problem. This one consists on giving people a candle, a book of matches and a box of thumbtacks. The goal is to attach the candle to the wall without letting it drip wax onto the table. Participants were told that they were going to be timed until they reach the problem solution. On this occasion, the reward was as follows: one group was told that if they managed to finish in the top 5, they would get $5; if they were the fastest participant, they would get $20. The other group wasn't offered a reward, they simply were told that they were participating in a problem solving experiment. Stilll, the results were extremely surprising: people that were no offered a monetary reward solved the problem, in average, three and a half minutes before people that were offered money. Hey! This is not how free markets are supposed to work, Right?
Daniel Pink states that the cause of these results, according to sociologists and behavioral scientists, must be the following: Economic rewards are a motivator, yes, but only to a limited extent. In order to obtain results from people they have to be paid enough to relieve them from financial stress. Any monetary motivation beyond that results in a halt to creative thinking. So, why do people solve problems and create new things then? Well, once the necessities of people are well met, they mainly engage in ingenious behavior because of three things: 1) Autonomy: Let people decide how to spend their time, they will make better use of it if they're entirely free to decide. Most creativity comes when people are doing something they enjoy with almost absolute liberty, people want/need liberty, period; 2) Mastery: Humans tend to become better and better at something when they actually enjoy doing it, free of external authority. Improvement comes with self discipline and self determination, and the liberty to voluntarily keep doing something one likes will cause a better skill progress in that activity, causing better results; 3) Purpose: work for causes, not for rewards. People who work for an external motive, something greater than themselves are usually the greatest innovators. Hunger for knowledge, contributing to the well being of society, being part of changing the world for good is usually what conducts to progress. All the latter can be called intrinsic motivation, they come from within the person. The debate between extrinsic (reward and punishment) and intrinsic motivation has scientifically reached an end here, clearly declaring the second one winner.
Alfie Kohn, in his research "No contest: the case against competition" states that competition, as well as profit, act as a distractor when people engage in any sort of intellectual or artistic activity. When people do something out of their will, they do it because of the joy they get from it, only for the sake of doing it. When competition or reward come into the eqution, the activity being performed becomes secundary. People stop focusing on the activity per sè, and their new objective -win the competition or accumulate profit- distracts them from the things they truly enjoy. An example would be a musician, who in his early career accepts performing for free because he wants his music to be heard, he enjoys entertaining people and that gives him satisfaction. Once he becomes famous, he is only willing to play if he gets paid a certain amount of money. In this case, money has become an obstacle that keeps him from doing something he used to enjoy because that is no longer his drive; profit is, winning is.
Here is a complete lecture of Alfie Kohn regarding that matter:
Throughout history, the big majority of innovators, geniuses, artists and most of original creators have been driven by curiosity, love for science, passion for art, causes superior to themselves, not seeking a monetary reward. To name a few: Da Vinci, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Leipzig, Newton, Buckminster Fuller, Maxwell, Fresco, Einstein... I could go on and on, but I want to elaborate one special case. Nikola Tesla, arguably the most influential inventor in the history of humanity. He is almost an unknown character, out of many history books and overshadowed by his rival Thomas Edison, who most of the time contracted inventors to create for him, guided by the profit incentive. Tesla is basically the man responsible for us using computers right now. He is the father of electricity and was working in methods to provide it freely. Reward was not his motivation, but creation of new things, understanding the universe, solving mysteries, defeating challenges and overall, improving humanity as a whole. He owned more than 150 patents, and was once told that someone was using one of them, and his answer was: "Let him, he's doing a good job". He died alone and relatively poor, without any recognition for his merits, but it was not like he was looking for it. He’s an example of true intrinsic motivation.
My final conclusion is that bounty hunting, acquisition of property, profit incentive, competition and power are not the true driving forces of this planet. We, as humans, are moved by greater intrinsic motivations that our current socioeconomic system and unsustainable culture are constantly trying to suppress, to undermine, to disregard. True success is doing exactly what you want and be happy. Let us all drive toward that path.
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