I took a graduate education class in college supporting a PHD candidate who’s dissertation focused on the idea that students learn better if they are self motivated. In other words, a student who wants to know something will learn it better than a student who’s forced to learn it. The undergrads like me gave questionnaires to classes and collated the results. That’s where I learned that I’m not cut out to be a teacher. I stood in front of a class of 25 or so once, getting ready to start the questionnaire. A student asked me if she could go to the bathroom before I started. I said yes. Another student asked, and I said yes. Within 30 seconds, the whole classroom devolved into utter chaos that was only brought under control by a passing teacher who heard it from the hallway.
Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation has been something I think about a lot since that class. What motivates us in our everyday lives? Driving is a good example, I think. I stop at stop signs, even in the middle of the night, not because I’m afraid that some hidden police will catch me, but because I believe in the principle of driving safely. I’m not going to stick myself with a huge accident bill, or worse, just because I couldn’t take the 10 seconds to stop. I’ve seen people who drive much differently. I’ve delayed turning at a stop sign several times because I saw that the driver coming the other way wasn’t going to stop. They weren’t distracted, I’ve had plenty of time to watch them as they approach. They were alert and looking for what I supposed was a speed trap or police car. When they didn’t see that, they ran the stop sign. Someone who only stops at a signal because they think they’ll be caught otherwise is acting on extrinsic motivation.
After watching people through the lens of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, I think that most approach life using the extrinsic model. They think in terms of external authorities instead of an internal compass. It makes for more than bad driving, too. Without a system of laws and morals to govern them, people will revert to more primitive cliques. That’s the foundation of bullying in schools. Until recently, bullying was seen as a right of passage, a toughening or winnowing of the students into winners and losers. Because there was no established rule preventing it, children acted on whatever instinct they experienced. The Lord of the Flies explores what happens to children when they’re left with no authority at all. That cliquish, bullying behavior doesn’t disappear as we get older, the rules just change.
A person who relies on an external source for their moral and intellectual motivation will always be subject to the clique mentality. Our nature allows us to form our own codes of conduct, but most people don’t. We all agree that driving aggressively is dangerous, but the rules of the road don’t have a penalty for doing it. I’ve seen people speed up to crowd a new car turning onto the street, honking and gesturing at the insult. The aggressive driver feels power over the other driver in the same way that a bully feels power. Since no rule prohibits it, the aggressive driver is left with nothing to stop him from menacing another person. That’s the essential failing of extrinsic motivation. Relying on the rules without having any other principle to guide you leaves large gaps where there are no rules.