why we do what we do

In 1969 a psychologist named Edward Deci conducted an experiment with a puzzle involving wooden blocks. A group of college students was paid a dollar for each puzzle they completed. Another group was not.

The experiment was really about what happened when the researcher left the room, supposedly to get a survey for the students to complete. The ones who were paid to do the puzzles were distracted, looking at magazines and other items in the room. Those who were not being paid, however, continued to try and solve the puzzles.

In his book Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation Deci describes this and similar research, arguing that rewards and punishments may actually work against parents, teachers and employers in the long run.

I’m inclined to agree, especially since such motivators reinforce external rather than internal motivation. If you control your kids by offering them rewards for everything they do, you don’t get good kids—you get greedy ones.

In learning, too, curiosity goes a lot further than coercion. And creativity often withers on the vine of expectation.

This focus on internal motivation is the thinking behind much management theory today, although most businesses still function on command and control, rewards and penalties, just as they have since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

So do many homes.

But relying on rewards and punishment is not biblical just because we’ve been doing it for a couple of hundred years. The carrots and sticks approach of behavior modification may insure well-behaved kids, but not necessarily well-motivated ones. Or employees either, for that matter.

I struggle, however, with new motivational teaching that focuses almost solely on personal autonomy. This popular “I’m in charge of myself” approach is not consistent with the clear biblical teaching that we’re not.

Or is it?

Real change comes from the inside out, as Christ clearly taught. But can autonomy, connection and purpose, the key components of modern motivational theory, coexist with authority, accountability and awe?

I think so. They do in the church, for example, where every believer is a priest and Christ is Lord of all. And they do in theology, where we accept that God is fully sovereign and we are fully responsible.

Freedom and responsibility are complementary, not contradictory. But awe in particular gets us outside ourselves, while much motivational literature turns us inward.

The fear of the Lord is still the beginning of wisdom.

And love is still the best motivation of all.


See also Parenting in an Age of Incentives

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