Science of Learning: Intrinsic Motivation

When I was growing up, I was a Yankees baseball fan. They were winning, my third-grade teacher read us a story about Mickey Mantle, and my dad loved the Dodgers – so I picked the Yankees. I listened to an interview on the radio with Reggie Jackson one day – Mr. Octobintrinsicer – and was crushed by the concrete example that emerged in the interview of extrinsic rewards crushing intrinsic motivation (I didn’t have a clue what it was called at the time). In order to become Mr. October, Reggie Jackson would have had to put in countless hours of practice, and he would have had to love the game in order to dedicate that much of his life to it. He was one of the highest paid professional sports stars at the time, and the interviewer asked him if he would still play the game if he was only paid $100,000 a year – a fraction of what he was making at the time. I remember being blown away when Reggie replied emphatically – NO! The extrinsic rewards, in the form of big money, had all but extinguished his love for the game, and he was playing for the money, not for the game.

Why is this important? Because when we do things because we are intrinsically motivated, we do a better job. We engage more, we attend better, and we work harder. We are working at something that we want to accomplish, and we work harder for ourselves than for anything else. Reggie Jackson became one of the best because of his love for the game.

If we are trying to do something because we want to do it, we do a much better job, and we can accomplish much more is a shorter time than if we are doing it for some other reason. If it is for us, we will see something through, and make things happen in order to accomplish it. If we are intrinsically motivated to learn something, we learn it. If our motivation (of which interest is a component) is strong enough, we will learn all there is to learn about something. We learn it because we want to learn it, and there is no stopping us. That is the most powerful motivator we have. In other words, we want all of our learners to be intrinsically motivated to learn.

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