Against Intrinsic Motivation

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Department (Manual Entry)

Feinstein School of Education and Human Development


A significant body of research in psychology demonstrates how extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic motivation of students. The conceptual weakness of the notion of intrinsic motivation makes the research findings at least suspect, and for sure excessively generalized. The research is often used to argue against compensating students for their academic work. It contributed to expansion of false beliefs about the possibility of significant increase of intrinsic learning motivation. These beliefs are grounded in several false assumptions: 1. The assumption of abundant curiosity; or a belief that children are all motivated to learn everything that is offered to them. It is false, because children's indiscriminate curiosity inevitably focuses on a more narrow set of interests as the person's identity develops. 2. The assumption that intrinsic motivation can be easily invoked, drawn to the surface. This assumption does not find support in experience. Moreover, education is different from entertainment in terms of objectives, so adding entertainment value to curriculum tends to diminish its educational value. 3. The main argument against extrinsic rewards is that if those are taken away, activity stops. But this argument is tautological: the definition of extrinsic rewards is that they create motives extrinsic to the person's interest in the activity. The fact that the desired activity stops after withdrawing the rewards is simply another way of defining what extrinsic motivation is, not an argument against it. And finally, proponents of intrinsic motivation believe it can be extended to every activity. However, this is impossible, because having an interest or preference in one activity implies less interest or preference for another activity. Interest is selective, and is used by people to establish their identities. Therefore, some children will not like school learning simply because they are different from those children who do. The utopian thinking predictably has an effect opposite to its intention, namely, the strengthening of administrative and legal coercion in education. The solution seems to be to offer a number of extrinsic rewards for children to motivate their learning, without the fear that it will somehow destroy their intrinsic love of knowledge. In the near future, we need to rethink schools as places where children receive something tangible in exchange for their effort in learning the curriculum. For some, it is the belonging to the school community, for other, an opportunity to engage in activities that are truly desirable (sports or theater, or arts, or social activism). In the long run, we need to figure out a way of normalizing the educational industry by starting to pay older children salaries for their learning activity.


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