Intrinsic Motivation

Numerous experiments have demonstrated that offering a reward for a previously unrewarded activity shifts one’s motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic, and undermines any pre-existing drive. If the external motivation is later removed, the subject loses interest in the activity. For example: if you take a person who enjoys painting and give them $1000 dollars for each item they produce, that compensation will eventually become the primary motive for their work. The previous desire to paint for painting’s sake fades, and often never returns. This phenomenon is referred to as the overjustification effect.

Children are naturally curious. From birth they soak up information like living sponges, no external incentive required. Conventional schooling, however, destroys this inclination. Modern education is grade oriented. Students are conditioned to work for the social validation conveyed by high marks, and to avoid condemnation that comes with failure. To that end facts and formulas are memorized for tests and quickly forgotten. The subject matter itself becomes a means to an end. Intrinsic curiosity is replaced by a transactional model: work in exchange for a socially induced shot of dopamine.

The final product of this process is a submissive employee, conditioned to punch a time clock and complete menial tasks for hours on end. After 13 or more years of schooling, most leave with out any real world skills to speak of. The natural desire to learn has been all but extinguished.

After graduation, financial compensation, rank and other status symbols replace grades as extrinsic motivators. Wealth and power attract social validation. The biochemical equation is the same.

Curiosity based learning models prioritize the development of intelligence rather than the memorization of facts and formulas, and avoids extrinsic motivators. Theory becomes interesting when anchored to the real world. Study is more effective when driven by intrinsic curiosity. Social context accelerates this process.

Music and language skills, for example, begin with listening and are consolidated by participation. Knowing how to navigate a musical scale becomes relevant when playing with other musicians. The value of learning foreign vocabulary is obvious when surrounded by those who speak it. The imperative to learn mathematics and geometry becomes clear when helping someone build the roof of a house. This approach engages the dopamine system in a far more sustainable way.

The human brain learns best in an iterative, nonlinear fashion. Ideas and skills absorb through repeated exposure and are reinforced by context. Each time we revisit a topic, our brains build upon existing neural pathways. Approaching topics from new angles connects related pathways. Following one’s intrinsic curiosity naturally builds these connections.

For example: understanding an event in history may require touching upon economics, culture, and social psychology. Studying social psychology might then segue into anthropology, evolution and biochemistry. These detours establish context and build the framework of true intelligence.

The human brain is capable of rewiring itself even into adulthood. These changes can occur at the microscopic level with individual neurons, or may involve large scale cortical remapping. Neuroplastic change can be initiated in response to injuries, new behaviors, thoughts, emotions, or environmental stimuli.

Cultures which cultivate intrinsic motivation rather than relying on extrinsic rewards, foster the intelligence, creativity and autonomy of its members. This conditioning is much more conducive to cooperative economic models, and decentralized, horizontal social structures.

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