In the early 1900s, B.F. Skinner worked on a behavioural theory which subscribed to the concept that humans are motivated by positive reinforcement (rewards).

This was how his experiment went:

First Stage

  • The rat was placed in a box
  • Over the course of a few days, food was occasionally delivered through an automatic dispenser
  • Before long, the rat approached the food tray as soon as the sound of the dispenser was heard, clearly anticipating the arrival of more food

Second Stage

  • Researchers raised a small lever on the wall of the box and when the rat touched it, the food dispenser provided a snack
  • After the first self-induced meal, the rat repeatedly touched the lever in order to get more food
  • To the hungry rodent, the sound of the dispenser became a reinforcer when it was first associated with feedings
  • After a while, researchers stopped providing food when the lever was pressed
  • Soon after that, the rat stopped touching the lever

The results of this experiment tells us that as long as rewards exist, we will be compelled to take the necessary actions to obtain those rewards. But when the rewards are no longer available, we will stop taking those actions. For the rat, food is the reward. For us, it’s the tangible measure of achievement. Straight As. A perfect GPA. A scholarship.

However, later on in the mid 19oos, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Harry Harlow conducted another experiment. He gave puzzles to the rhesus monkeys in his primate laboratory and noticed a curious effect: when he rewarded the monkeys for solving the puzzle, they became slower at the task.

Twenty years later, Edward Deci, then a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, tested this effect in humans, and found a similar result: the presence of cash made them worse at solving creative puzzles. He then dedicated his subsequent three decades to come up with the self-determination theory (SDT).

SDT proposes linking human motivation with intrinsic psychological needs, such as having a sense of competence, independence and being able to relate with the external environment. The extent to which people are able to satisfy their basic psychological needs as they pursue and attain their valued outcomes, determines how motivated they are.

This means that no matter how attractive a particular reward may appear, this reward must click with the psychological need of the person in order for him/her to even want this reward.

Hence, it is not the rewards that motivate, although it’s easy to associate them as the motivating factor. Instead, it’s a person’s level of passion, discipline and commitment towards fulfilling their psychological needs that keeps them going.

So let me ask you. What are your psychological needs?

To read about the values that geniuses have, click here:

Peace out