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Awards and Motivation

adult learning gamification motivation narrative Aug 24, 2018

A lot has been written about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in popular books and articles, but scientists are not so sure such a differentiation exists. There is no part of the brain dedicated to extrinsic awards and another part that comes from within. Dopamine, for instance, is released, regardless of whether someone gives you a reward or if you are the only one aware of your accomplishment. 

Or to put it another way, the carrot and stick only work if you like carrots and fear sticks. 

If a company owner wants to “bribe” employees by incentivizing them with bonuses for performance, those bonuses are only motivating if the employee desires more money. And why would an employee want more money? Maybe to better care for their family—an intrinsic motivator; to be able to buy a nicer car—the desire for status, an intrinsic motivator; to save for retirement—the intrinsic motivation for feeling safe and secure. The extra money itself is not enticing, it’s which intrinsic desire the money will support is what motivates. 

If, on the other hand, the boss wants to use the “stick” of docking pay or suspension, this only has power if there are certain needs that the pay satisfies. If their family is well cared for and they are financially secure, the threat has no sting. 

So, when it comes to Gamification, we don’t need to worry about whether a reward is intrinsic or extrinsic; instead, we need to make sure that our rewards satiate a core human desire in some way. A badge in and of itself has no value except if it appeals to the core desire of power if it acknowledges a sense of accomplishment, or status if other people are able to “see” the badge. 

Or let’s say we give a gift card when someone levels up. The gift card is only a reward if it satisfies an internal motivator. Are they motivated by curiosity? Then a bookstore gift card has meaning. But if someone has a low curiosity motivation, then the gift card has little meaning, unless they are motivated by acceptance or social contact, in which case they could gift the card to someone else.  

All motivation is intrinsic; we just need external stimuli to satisfy our core desires. And since our core drives are only satisfied for a short period of time (you will be hungry again today), we are motivated to keep seeking more satisfaction. And herein lies the true power of gamification.

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