Category Archives: SAT

Are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated?

Conventional wisdom holds that most of us are extrinsically motivated—offer us some extra credit, a bigger bonus, or a heftier piece of cake, and we’ll work harder and achieve better results. We also tend to believe that the reverse is true: if we punish poor behavior, a bad grade, or low performance, we’ll see less of that behavior in the future. This is known as the “carrots and sticks” model of motivation, and we see it everywhere, from the parenting of children, all the way up to complex diplomatic relations between nations. If you’re a parent, and you’ve ever offered your student a desirable reward for a good grade, while threatening to take away iPhone privileges for a failing one, then you’re more than familiar with carrots and sticks. The question we should all be asking ourselves, however, is: Do carrots and sticks actually work?

Despite the fact that the reward/punishment model is so deeply rooted in how we think about influencing behavior, psychological studies have shown that carrots and sticks really only work well when the task at hand is algorithmic—that is, when it involves repeating the same mundane sequence over and over again. If you offer someone a cash bonus to stuff a certain number of envelopes in an hour, that person’s going to work faster, and you’re going to get better results. Stuffing envelopes is a simple, left-brain task that everyone already knows how to do; to do it more quickly doesn’t require activating the complex, creative thinking of the right half of the brain.

However, reward/punishment is actually detrimental when it comes to problems such as the following:



\text{What is the value of }x-y\text{?}

The above is a classic SAT problem: you can actually solve it without ever finding the values of x or y alone. However, because students are taught algorithms in school to solve for x, they typically try to do just that, and then run into all kinds of problems with questions like this one. Essentially, most students try to approach this problem with the left half of their brains, in envelope-stuffing fashion. But this problem cannot be stuffed like an envelope; it requires “outside-the-box,” right brain thinking. Oftentimes, this is where students hit a wall—a wall that no reward or punishment is going to motivate them to get over. So how do we get these students to persevere, to try the problem, to fail at it, then to try again in a different way, and if necessary, to ask a teacher, a parent, an older sibling, or a tutor for help, and then, after that whole process, to finally go back, to discover the error, and then re-attempt the problem and finally get it right?

The only way students will bother with any of this is if they are intrinsically motivated, or rather, if they see the task as its own reward. At first glance, this might seem laughable. Except for a handful of math geeks, who would ever see a math puzzle as its own reward? As it turns out, however, we are actually psychologically hardwired to enjoy puzzles; for those students who claim to dislike math, my bet would be that it has far more to do with an embarrassing or traumatic experience they had with math at a young age than with any built-in animosity towards numbers. I also know from my own tutoring experience that “I’m just not good at math” is largely a self-limiting belief that can be unlearned. As we now know, intelligence is not a fixed quantity like your height, but much more like a muscle, which can be strengthened through training and exercise.

So how do we intrinsically motivate our students or, for that matter, ourselves? I encourage you to try the following the next time you want to get your son or daughter to sit down and study (or to get yourself to do something you’ve been procrastinating):

On a scale of 1 to 10, how interested are you in [studying, going to the gym, writing your novel, etc.] right now?

Typically, you’ll get a response of 3 or maybe 4—big surprise. Now ask the following:

Why didn’t you say a lower number?

No one expects this follow-up question, and it takes us off guard. In answering the question, we spontaneously begin to list all the reasons we actually do want to do the thing we’ve been procrastinating—“Well, I do actually want to get a good grade, and it would be great to get this out of the way before the weekend…” In listing all the reasons we actually do want to tackle the task at hand, we unknowingly increase our intrinsic motivation, which is what actually gets us to move.

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Do you need help motivating your teen to excel in school? Contact me today for a free consultation!

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