Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nature vs Nurture? How about Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation?

When understanding human behavior, the debate about nature vs nurture has been around for a long time.

The definition of nature: by nature, as a result of inborn or inherent qualities; innately.

The definition of nurture: the sum of environmental influences and conditions acting on an organism.

The earliest philosophers, and the psychologists that followed, have talked about human behavior in relation to how one's nature is relevant and/or more influential than one's nurture (environment); and vice versa. We still debate this today, but this will not be the topic of this post. The topic of this post is far more important to humans and the technology that enables us.

As a species, here on earth, there shall be a greater debate to be had. In time we evolve as a species. We are rapidly changing as a species; especially our behavior. Nevertheless, we are still an animal, a living thing that interacts with the biotic and abiotic factors found in its environment. Above and beyond these important factors, we will soon have a catastrophic phenomenon called "Intrinsic" versus "Extrinsic" source of motivation of our species.

The definition of intrinsic: belonging to a thing by its very nature.

The definition of extrinsic: being outside a thing; outward or external; operating or coming from without: extrinsic influences.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Homo sapiens were not extrinsically rewarded for "doing the right thing" or for doing what they were supposed to do. The prefrontal lobes in our brains maintain the intrinsic motivation that we have and which is developed over time. It is this archaic characteristic of internal responses and self rewarding behavior that is evolving. Evolving at a rapid pace.

As a social organism, Homo sapiens are evolving from an intrinsically motivated species to an extrinsically motivated species. Can you picture a cave man or cave woman gathering food or killing an animal with the thoughts that he or she would get an external reward for providing for himself or family? What about a female homo sapiens from about 5,000 years ago thinking that if she holds her offspring to keep it safe and warm, she will get some social reward?

Let's take it one step further since we are animals. Have you ever seen an animal such as a lion or wolf hunting its prey to provide food for its pride or pack and then it comes back and a member gives it a ribbon or sticker?

As a member of this species, I see how we are overly extrinsically motivated as a whole to "do the right thing." What's in it for me? Do I get a bonus? Do I get a sticker?

As a teacher, I see first hand how, overall, students are extrinsically motivated to learn. Often there is a, "What is in it for me?" attitude. What about the fact that you are learning and bettering yourself?

Where and when was this lost? Why is it that there is such an emphasis on external rewards?

Where will this evolving characteristic lead us? What kind of interactive species will we become?

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What can we do as progressive thinkers, as parents, as educators to change this?


  1. Hi PSE,

    Great post!

    We have (versus 'will) become an interactive species that places doing ahead of being; that defines success more by what one does (career), what one is (job and social titles) and what one has (money and things) than who one is. To your point, we are more motivated by the extrinsic rewards associated with doing than we are the intrinsic rewards associated with being.

    Intrinsic within each of us is the ability to be (disciplined, compassionate, resilient, loving, etc.). Our nature provides feedback mechanisms from which to measure adherence to this ability. The physical pain felt when cutting one's self sends a signal to stop doing something. Emotional pain (e.g., stress, frustration, anger) is a trigger to stop being someone (e.g., unaccepting, resentful, unfeeling).

    Unfortunately, our enculturation (i.e., nurturing) does not teach this. We are taught, in infancy, through extrinsic motivation, that life is defined by what we are, what we do and what we do or do not have. We are led to believe, through example, that emotional pain is a part of our nature; that stress and frustration are a part of being human. How little we know.

    What we can do is be. To quote Ghandi, 'Be the change you wish to see in the world.' You wish to see change in your students. Thankfully you are being the person you need to be for the young minds in your classroom; young people that will one day pass your lessons to their children.

    God bless!


    teaches his evolving characteristic is leading us; to a life of doing. Who doesn't awake each morning to a mind filled with thoughts regarding

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful response. It is enlightening and inspires me to be better and more mindful of what is important.