If you doubt the power of ideas, consider the pervasive influence of the notion of ‘motivation’ in contemporary culture. People use and practice the term in child raising, education, and work in both the private and public sectors.
This is part 2 of a 7-part article series titled "Forget Motivation: It's Time to Engage".
An enormous body of research on the topic includes more than 10,000 dissertations and nearly as many book titles resting on library shelves. Hundreds of articles appear each year in business, trade, and academic journals. Motivators keynote conventions and meetings across the county. A simple Google search on the term instantaneously returns over 50 million hits. How can one doubt the importance of motivation?
It’s time to start doubting because it doesn’t work.
A HISTORICAL BACKWARD GLANCE
At its core motivation theory is about human behavior. In mid-20th century thinking the school of behaviorism dominated psychological studies. Rooted in the experiments of Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov on the conditioning of dogs, with additions from Clark Hull’s and J. B. Watson’s studies of appetites, instincts, and frustrations leading up to B. F. Skinner’s studies of rats and pigeons, it was the manipulation of stimuli that shaped animal behavior. The assumption followed that the biological core of humans determine how they will behave given specific stimuli. Even Freud assumed that it was the animal heritage of humans that explained much of their makeup. This behaviorist school of thought had enormous influence in our culture and remains an important theme of psychological studies today.
A new theory emerged in the years after World War II; psychologists turned greater attention to the role of the mind and the importance of human perception, values, social circumstance, and the development of the self in shaping the human experience. By the 1970s studies of consciousness, emotion, affiliation, and memory broadened the field into what Howard Gardner (1985) branded the cognitive revolution to acknowledge the centrality of the mind in human behavior.
Since that time those wanting to guide human behavior must broaden their perspective to include human attitudes. The question became, how can we get people to want to behave as we wish? That is, work or study harder? In earlier times of slavery or domination by landlord or factory boss, force or the threat of its use served well enough to stimulate simple laboring tasks (Weiner, 1992). But with subsistence survival declining and work complexity increasing as norms in the Western world, something else was necessary. The ‘stick’ of force was balanced by the ‘carrot’ of reward. The offer of a bonus, or high grade, or increased allowance became the ‘solution’ to the problem. The belief took hold that surely people would be willing to do what was expected to gain the offered prize.