The Science Behind Motivation

Picture this: you are a mouse in a cage with a tiny wheel. Do you run on the wheel every day, or do you eat grain snacks and get fat in the corner? Okay, now picture you aren’t a mouse. 

Do you run every day, or do you eat snacks and get fat on the couch? What exactly motivates mice and men to get up and move?

Would you be surprised to learn that in 2013, a laboratory tested mice for laziness? When presented with a running wheel in their cages, many of the mice still preferred to do absolutely nothing. (Later, when they filled out paperwork at their doctor’s office, they lied about it and marked “exercises 2-3 times a week” instead of “sedentary lifestyle.”)

As it turns out, you can be genetically disposed to be a lazy or motivated person…mouse. While some mice chose to run all day, others chose no exercise at all. Scientists took this a step further and bred mice of similar activity levels. 

It was a surprise to no one when the offspring mimicked the motivation levels of their parents. So while lazy mice bred lazy mice, active mice breed marathon-runners. As a result of the experiment, a whopping 36 genes in mice were connected to motivation levels.

So what do mice have to do with you and your own couch-potato tendencies? In the end, there is a relatively thin line separating the genetic makeup of lab mice and humans. So the same thing that keeps a mouse from giving a rat’s ass…about his rat’s ass…is the same thing that might affect you. 

If scientists can identify specific genes that affect the motivation a mouse has, you can bet the same is true for humans.

While the experiments have only proven a genetic link to the desire for physical exertion, there is a strong chance that motivation for many different types of activities is influenced by your genes. So the next time someone tells you, “God, read a book once in a while!” you can tell them that you are literally “not a book person.” (Which we know is not the case, hopefully.)

So can we in good conscience blame the growing problem of obesity on genes? You could definitely argue that, but that’s not all there is to the equation.

The Real Motivating Factors

Motivation is about mindset and outside factors, too. Surprise, surprise – there is also an entire branch of psychological sciences working on the question of motivation, too. Even Sigmund Freud, with his hyper-sexualized view of everyday life, had something to say about what makes you get up and go.

Speaking of arousal, did you know that you’re motivated by it? According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, you and the rest of your fellow humans just want to have a good time. In fact, you’re willing to do just about anything to have your interest aroused. Do you ever feel motivated from curiosity?

To put a face to a name – this is like when you meet an attractive potential mate and are more drawn to them the more mysterious they seem. This is also like your cat falling into the toilet bowl because it has decided it would rather drink from something unfamiliar than its own water dish. 

The point is, you’re just one of many people who want to be wined and dined by everyday life. Maybe Nirvana was just talking about Yerkes-Dodson’s law when they sang, “Here we are now, entertain us.”

Similar to this idea, scientists have also found that you are more likely to do well if you’re feeling a little unsure. Of course, being so anxious that you’re unable to function is not going to help anyone; however, being a little nervous can be an intense source of motivation.

For instance, think about being in school or college during exam week. Your classmates who scored best were not the extremely distraught people who pulled all-nighters, nor were they the people who were so confident that they didn’t study. No, the most successful were the students who maintained a healthy level of concern over their grades throughout the school year and thus motivated themselves to study frequently in moderate amounts.

Another situation: you are going on a blind date and your companion for the night turns out to be a 10/10. A little bit of anxiety over getting along with this person will actually help you. You’re more likely to try harder at showing them your true personality, which will hopefully win you another date. This kind of thing happens everywhere, every day.

Surgeons who perform open-heart surgery are motivated to do the best they can because their task is so delicate and gruelling.

The Cowboys cheerleaders are motivated to dance a little harder just because they know hundreds of thousands of fans are watching.

YOU are motivated to focus on your tasks at work when the boss is in the same room, because you want to meet his or her expectations.

Why is it considered jinxing someone if you wish them good luck before they go on stage? Maybe the old phrase “break a leg” is actually so popular because it plays on the idea that anxiety equals motivation and success?

And on the subject of performance – do you like rewards? When you were a kid, did you ever sell cookies or catalogs door to door for school? The prizes for selling the most Hershey’s bars were always stunningly extravagant, to a kid.

This kind of motivation, jokingly called the “carrot and stick” method by psychologists, is everywhere.

If you got a Christmas bonus last year for the culmination of all the work you did over the past 365 days, then you’ve bitten the carrot. If you’ve signed up with a credit card that offers money back on gas or free airline miles, you’ve also taken the bait.

Extrinsic Motivation

The thing is, more and more clinical studies are starting to argue with this extrinsic view on motivation. Extrinsic motivation simply means that the motivation for doing a good job or being productive comes not from inside you, but from outside sources.

Dan Pink, who was a guest on the program Ted Talks, is one of the major voices spearheading the view that the old carrot and stick method is obsolete.

If you walked into work tomorrow and your boss offered a vacation to Hawaii to the first person to draw up a fantastic new marketing plan for your company, would you be stoked?

According to recent surveys, the tropical getaway would motivate you initially, but your work would actually be less productive than if no reward was present. The thing is, this is not a question of vacation versus no vacation. Prodding yourself to work is a bit more complex.

So, say instead of using a vacation to incite workers, your employer employs this new strategy: You are allowed to work whenever, wherever you want. Period.

End of story. As long as you complete your assignments, you can lounge around in pyjama pants at your house all day and no one will say a word.

Or maybe your employer takes the approach Google uses to spur its employees to work: the 20% rule. You are expected to work certain hours, but 20% of your time at work is your own. During this time, you can work on whatever productive project you like.

Through a lot of back-breaking research on economics and productivity, researchers found that workers are always more productive with rewards if the task set before them doesn’t require much thought.

If you were putting the same parts together on an assembly line day in and day out, you would definitely work faster with an extravagant reward in sight. But, if the task even slightly tests your cognitive and creative skills, the carrot and stick system begins to falter.

Intrinsic Motivation

Now you know what’s the deal with extrinsic (outside) motivation, here is the other side of the coin.

Intrinsic motivation is what we call that 20% time rule and other non-traditional ways of encouraging employees to work.

Would you personally rather have the chance at a vacation to Hawaii or an everyday work environment that encourages you to bring your own projects and creativity to the table?

Endgame – both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation have their pros and cons. Have you ever tried the diet plan called Weight Watchers? It is one of the most successful diet plans out there because it combines both these strategies for a double whammy effect on dieting. 

You have the freedom to eat what you want (in moderation and while learning about nutrients and portion size) while also the motivation to look good in front of your group at the next weekly weigh-in.

Motivation from yourself and others – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Do you have a big project at work due soon? Are you trying to lose weight, whether it be vanity pounds or half your body size?

The best way to motivate yourself is by learning the science behind what makes you tick.

What gets your desire to do things going, and what makes you persist until your work is complete?

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