Element 21:

Breeding Out Personal Meaning by Extrinsic Motivation

External motivators “co-opt intrinsic motivation and preclude intrinsic satisfaction. …Thus people develop stronger extrinsic needs as substitutes for more basic, unsatisfied needs. … They may end up behaving as if they were addicted to extrinsic rewards.”
– Edward Deci

mrshouty[1]While extrinsic motivators have the capacity to reduce our ability to pay attention, learn, and be creative, their most damaging effect may be to alter our neural networks in such a manner that we actually prefer doing what others, especially those having authority over us, deem important instead of what we personally find meaningful.

A whole host of researchers has shown that, like pouring water on a flame, extrinsic motivation kills internal drive. Motivational psychologists also recognize that, under prolonged exposure to outside control, self-inspiration becomes more and more difficult to generate, and people begin to believe that they can only get fulfillment by achieving goals formulated by others.

This shift in preference from internal to external motivation can be devastating, setting up a mental framework in which we may be unable to effectively access meaning in our own lives. Instead of rising each morning with a smile on our faces, a gleam in our eyes, and filled with glorious expectations of fulfilling our own dreams, we instead drag ourselves out of bed with the anxious anticipation of being rewarded or punished by others, based on how well we live up to their expectations.

Read on to learn more about how extrinsic motivators breed out our ability to access personal meaning

Foundation for Codependency

Our extrinsic-centered society has created a world where generations of people have lost the ability to access personal motivation. Institutions consider the best students and the best workers the ones who follow the rules. But behind the gold stars, good grades, and grand job titles often reside individuals who feel unfulfilled. They get an A+ for doing what is significant to others and an F for being able to figure out what has meaning for them.

figurepuzzle[1]Our neural networks gain strength, power, and growth based on our usage of them. Like muscles, the neural networks we use become competent and strong, and the ones we ignore become weak and atrophied. When our 25 watts of neural energy are mainly forced to focus on what satisfies others, little neural energy is left to maintain and construct the networks that support what matters to us. In the end, when we live in environments that overuse outside motivators, our neural networks can overadapt themselves to “fit” others’ wishes and underadapt to “fit” what pleases us.

Dopamine System Partly to Blame

The adaptation of our dopamine pleasure system is strongly implicated in this shift from internal to external motivation. Like all neural structures, the dopamine system adapts itself to fit the most prevalent environmental stimuli. When we live in primarily controlling environments, which force us, through reward and punishment, to repeatedly move in directions meaningful to others, the dopamine system adapts itself to prefer external stimulation. This is not an inconsequential shift. This means that our attention, focus, and pleasure come not from stimulating the networks that hold personal meaning but from stimulation of the networks governed by outside forces. In the end, the extended use of extrinsic motivators can make us addicted – not to doing what we find significant in life, but to what matters to others.

goldmanmoney[1]This shift is a main factor in the psychological condition called codependency. Researchers have found that external motivation causes subjects to become much more attentive to reinforcement by others through reward or punishment. In fact, after extended exposure to outside motivators, individuals prefer external forms of motivation and lose the ability to direct themselves. As brain-based educator Eric Jensen notes, “Learners who have been on a reward system will be conditioned to prefer it over free choice.” Overexposure to external motivation can breed out the very ability to access what is personally meaningful. Like Pavlov’s dogs, our dopamine pleasure system can become overly conditioned to respond to stimuli that have no substance for us personally. (Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to salivate to the ringing of bells.)

We have learned from the world of addiction that people will go to almost any length to get drugs that prompt a specific brain region to squirt out its satisfying hit of dopamine. Like drugs, external motivators can usurp the dopamine focus, attention, and reward circuits. Of extrinsic motivators, researcher Edward Deci notes, they “co-opt intrinsic motivation and preclude intrinsic satisfaction. The extrinsic needs … become stronger in themselves. Thus people develop stronger extrinsic needs as substitutes for more basic, unsatisfied needs. … They may end up behaving as if they were addicted to extrinsic rewards.”

This kidnapping of the dopamine circuits by extrinsic motivators may also be the foundation of the love/hate aspect of codependent relationships. The theory is that rewards and punishments can never activate the dopamine/endorphin system as effectively as personal meaning. At a subconscious level, codependents recognize this, and while they seek dopamine production from the source of their codependency, they also feel unfulfilled by this source. The end result loves the source for what it gives them and feeling unsatisfied at the same time.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

The neurological reason why so many of us graduate from school having no idea what we really want to do with our lives.

How research shows that, when animals and people are over-dominated by extrinsic motivators to the point where they feel helpless, they give up trying to cope with life all together.

How Germans were ” primed” in the early 1900s to blindly follow Hitler’s fanatic will.

How an over controlling environment limits a teacher’s ability to effectively do her job.

How a teacher’s role is compromised when her primary job is to demand that students sit still and listen to information that usually has no meaning to them.

Why the teacher should be relieved of her job as inquisitor and put into the role of master – one who has the intuition and ability to impart meaningful information at the correct time in the student’s cycle of knowledge acquisition.

To help you understand more about how personal meaning is bred out of us by the overuse of rewards and punishment, click on other Elements:

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

“No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network

No Learning Without Emotion

No Learning Without Feedback From the Body

Working Memory – Where Emotionally and Somatically Tagged Information Gets Prioritized

Addicted to Meaning

The Motivational Problem

Why There Is No Personal Meaning in Education