Wanting to Want for Its Own Sake

15 April 2019

Here is one of the most surprising findings that replicates well in social psychology: rewarding a kind of action does not boost motivation to perform that action. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Rewarding an action ultimately tends to decrease people’s motivation to perform that action.


Part of the problem seems to be that rewards for behavior provide extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is motivation you have to do something for a different, further goal. When you’re motivated to watch a movie because it will please your friend, you have extrinsic motivation to watch that movie. The contrast here is with intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is motivation you have to do something for its own sake. When you just like playing guitar, and you don’t care what else comes of your playing guitar, you have intrinsic motivation to play guitar.


The distinction between these two kinds of motivation is important. But I think that sometimes your motivation to do some kind of action changes over time from an extrinsic to an intrinsic motivation. This phenomenon is less well studied, but it’s worth paying attention to.


There are some cases of changes from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation that happen very suddenly. Consider a case in which your friend is bugging you to try a weird new food. You might start eating this food just so your friend will stop bugging you to try it. That’s extrinsic motivation. But if you actually like the taste, your motivation to keep eating it will quickly become intrinsic motivation. This switch can happen all in a moment.


But then there are cases where the switch takes a lot longer. A lot of these cases involve building up skills. Sometimes when you start doing something new and you’re not very good at it yet, you have an extrinsic motivation to do it. For instance: I might start practicing tennis so that I can share a hobby with my partner. That’s extrinsic motivation. I might keep only that extrinsic motivation for quite some time, while I start to improve more and more at this skill. At some point when I am just good enough to keep a rally going, I might actually start to enjoy the game. At that point, I might gain intrinsic motivation. I might start playing tennis for its own sake—just because I like it.


This suggests the possibility of having an odd, hybrid type of motivation. If I see the tennis case as an example of a general pattern in changing motivations, I might realize that I can start doing things in order to gain a skill and enjoy those things for their own sake. I might, for instance, start running in order to be able to enjoy running. This looks on the surface like an extrinsic motivation: I’m doing something for the sake of some further, different end. While I keep this motivation in mind, I might actively dislike running. It might hurt. It might be difficult, boring, and tiring. In this phase, this doesn’t seem like a case of having any intrinsic motivation to run. However, having this extrinsic motivation folds in an aspiration to have another kind of motivation, an intrinsic motivation. That’s what I meant by calling this kind of motivation a “hybrid” type: it’s an extrinsic motivation to do something in the service of having an intrinsic motivation to do it.


The idea of a hybrid motivation like this has some commonalities with Harry Frankfurt’s discussion of second-order desires, which can be desires to have desires you don’t yet have. We can treat the extrinsic motivation to act in order to gain an intrinsic motivation as a motivating second-order desire.


Having this kind of hybrid extrinsic motivation to gain an intrinsic motivation is certainly not a normal case. I think it’s fairly rare for people to have this kind of ‘hybrid’ motivation to do anything at all. But I think it’s also reasonable in context, when you have good reason to believe that you will enjoy doing something the more you do it—as when you are building a skill. I try to keep this in mind the more I rely on my own extrinsic motivations to build habits.


Perhaps extrinsic motivations—like rewards for behavior, as studied by social psychologists—can only go so far in keeping up a habit or behavior. But if that extrinsic motivation gets replaced by intrinsic motivation at some point, things might start to look different. At least that’s what I tell myself when I hate running—as I do, all the time. I have to do it, often, in order to start to enjoy it.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, April 18, 2019 -- 12:49 PM

Those of us who have read

Those of us who have read (and still read) philosophy know about the intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of wants, needs and behaviors. Much, if not most of this emerges over time an through the maturation process unique to homo sapiens sapiens. Maslow was getting to this in developing his now-familiar hierarchy; Piaget, through his operations approach to childhood development. What you have said in the first sentence of this post is probably true for many actions performed by humans. I don't necessarily believe it to be so for all, and doubt if your words were meant to convey that notion. Take writers, for example. Those of us who participate in that endeavor often (if not generally) begin at some more-or-less fundamental level of expertise. This may happen in high school, at a college level, or at any time in our individual development, formal education notwithstanding. We who are bitten by this bug are often powerless to withdraw from the craft. Rewards (that is, $$$$) may be meager. For years. But love of the activity; love of self-expression, often outweigh the money angle. This is but one example of an activity which is not reward-dependent, and, in which disappointment is more often rule rather exception. I am also a guitar player and used to get paid for that---not a fortune, but enough to make it worth my while. Fingers don't work as well as they once did. So, I seldom play now. When I do, I still enjoy it---creaky fingers, and all. I do not tire of writing though, and hope I never shall... I do not expect any award(s) for PARTICIPATION. That is one of the most ridiculous developments of the twenty-first century, period. As stated earlier, intrinsics and extrinsics are much discussed in philosophy. That is as ought to be, because these states determine much of who we are.