Intrinsic Motivations

I enjoyed listening to Teresa Amabile last week at a workshop on Open Source. She was asked to do color commentary on three papers that were looking into the motivations of contributors. Dr. Amabile’s work is on creativity and one of her key findings is that creativity thrives under intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation.

Though she didn’t mention it my favorite detail from that literature is that engaging in heroic fantasies is almost certain to put the kibosh on creativity. A more robust finding is that if you give rewards for an activity, for example you reward kids for reading books, you get a increase in the behavior, but the moment you stop rewarding the behavior stops. You can actually use this to stop bad behaviors; you reward them (cash is good) for a while and then stop.

There is a lot more to Amabile’s work beyond the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation aspect!

In the best traditions of scholarly work she pointed out that all the data in the papers seems to support that theory. While that is somewhat true I must say that only just barely, since the papers were sadly lacking in questions that might have teased out possible intrinsic motivation. That said I do agree that there is a lot of activity in the open source community that is fundamentally driven by intrinsic motivations.

So later I got to poking around on the net looking at usages of the term. “Intrinsic motivation” is certainly less popular with the hard science crowd and more popular with the more empathetic crowd. Presumably Teresa is working to fix that.

What I was seeking was to put some meat on the bones of that term. What exactly is an intrinsic motivation? Well the obvious answer is (in the negative) is not external.

  • Forced serving of another.
  • Decided service of another.
  • Attitudinal service.

The last choice is certainly more intrinsically motivated than the first.

Or we might look for an enumeration of different kinds of intrinsic motivations; here’s a nice, but very incomplete (for example artistic motivations are missing), list.

  • Principled protection
  • Supportive assistance
  • Instructive Investigator
  • Practical Advisor
  • Charitable Sponsor
  • Organizing Director
  • Merciful Empathizer

Both those lists are taken from here, a firm that sells one of those personality-profiling services that are so popular in magazines. They sell them to companies, presumably as a way stir the pot. Such things are fun if you treat them lightly.

What’s interesting about those lists is how they harken back to the religious ideas of a “calling.” Now that is sure to drive economists crazy. Of course we could call it lock-in.

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