Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Intrinsic Motivations and a Secret of the Good Life

In the Sunday NY Times, Amy Wrzensniewski and Barry Schwartz argue that the secret of success is internal versus instrumental motivation.  They find that being driven by intrinsic values (say, studying in order to learn) rather than instrumental ones (studying to get a good grade to get a degree to get a good job) is highly correlated with success among entering West Point cadets. Intrinsic motivation would appear to best achieve the unrequited ends sought by instrumental values. Schwartz has a keen eye for such paradoxes--his earlier work on the Paradox of Choice shows why more is not necessarily better.

Aristotle intuited the importance of intrinsic motivation in his understanding of virtue, and philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre relates this to internal mastery of a practice. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett shows the satisfaction that comes from doing a job well for its own sake.  Lynn Stout, in her book Cultivating Conscience, argues that focusing on instrumental values in compensation schemes (i.e., pay based on meeting predetermined performance metrics) undermines the moral basis of intrinsic motivation (and inhibits true excellence): teachers and doctors, for example, should be working to improve people's lives, not just to meet a metric to make more money.

In my forthcoming book The Good Life, I look at the lives and aspirations of German consumers and Guatemalan farmers, and find that in both (radically different) circumstances, dignity and commitment to larger purpose are both fundamental elements of wellbeing. As I argue, understanding the elements of what makes us better off can provide the basis of a positive anthropology as well as practical policy suggestions.  

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