6 min read

Demotivation Nation

Demotivation Nation
Oh, Bing...you have so much to learn.

Happy New Year!!!

Welcome to this weeks look at all things at which I've been looking. Today it is motivation: how to build it and how to drain it away.

Mad Science Solves...

I was once invited to visit RedBull’s US headquarters in Santa Monica, where I had lunch with a fellow named Rodney Mullen. Charismatic and kinetic, Rodney is arguably the best skateboarder of all time. He and Tony Hawk dominated the sport for years, winning dozens of world championships. Over lunch, rather than asking about skating, I asked Rodney what he did after defending his titles. “Well," he said, "Tony and I would go to the after-party and drink some champagne...then 20 or 30 minutes later we’d be out back practicing new moves.” He had already won. He was at his own party. And he didn’t care.

Rodney is rich in endogenous motivation, the drive that comes from within. Where sensitivity to rewards and punishments fails (exogenous motivation), endogenous motivation brings about the intrinsic curiosity and personal drive that powers positive life outcomes.

In 2014, I was analyzing a database of 122 million working professionals looking for the commonalities that predicted a great hire across software developers, salespeople, and designers. Grades, test scores, skill sets—none of these classic hiring factors were robustly predictive. (For that matter, neither was race, gender, or age, but that’s another story.) The best predictor across professions was the answer to this question: “What did they do when they didn’t have to do anything?” Which salespeople regularly booked sales the day after the end of the sales cycle? Which developers are most likely to push code to repository even after a product release? All of the incentives of the business say, “Take a break. No one cares." But they do. They are incentive insensitive. And so are their elite peers.

What’s fascinating, though, is that incentive insensitivity doesn’t simply describe “the best”. Applying a simple computational algorithm, a Fourier analysis, to the work behavior over time of hundreds of thousands of salespeople, the most incentivized job in the world, revealed that as incentive insensitivity increased, so did sales volume and other measures of productivity. Further, workers’ sensitivity to exogenous motivators correlated with worse long-term career outcomes in terms of performance and progression.

Endogenous motivation appears to provide the drive necessary to engage and persevere by finding meaning in every task, every job, every obstacle. Fanatics not only “won’t change the subject”, as Winston said, they see that subject in all they do. Endogenous motivation is not about “what” you are doing, but “why” you're doing it.

Although our findings about the crucial importance of incentive insensitivity appears to fly in the face of so much of how we structure our businesses and classrooms, research has supported again and again the importance of endogenous motivation in student outcomes, job performance, career progression, and even predicting the life outcomes of young children. For example, across 10,000 West Point cadets who were tracked for over a decade, endogenous motivation predicted rank attainment and awards during their Army careers. Exogenous motivation actually appeared to undermine these outcomes. All of the incentives we hold so dear—punishment, rewards...emotional blackmail—are all negative predictors of success. (Sorry, Tiger Moms.)

But that doesn't mean these are innately fixed qualities. Research shows that family-level programs designed to increase socio-emotional parenting behavior appear to drive the development of endogenous motivation creating a belief in those children that their hard work will pay off. One such study showed these children earning 25% percent more as adults decades after the interventions. Another found substantially lower cortisol levels years later in at-risk children receiving the interventions. In a review of this research, we found that implementing these known interventions at scale across US children would add between $1.3-1.8 trillion per year to the US GDP.

My own research with young learners shows that targeted interventions delivered to caregivers by simple text messages can foster endogenous motivation in the classroom and at home. We built an SMS-based system where parents can snap pictures of children's artwork and record conversations, such as reading a book together, which are then analyzed by our deep neural networks. Results of these models are combined with the results of an active learning system that asks a single, high-value question each day. Our model then tailors a single activity for parents and children to share together, design specifically to support endogenous motivation and other life skills.

Simple, targeted intervention can move the needle in endogenous motivation for school-aged children and have long-lasting impacts on improving their lives and how they interact with the world around them. Having spent the last two decades dissecting and analyzing all of the systems that engage and unlock human potential, I have discovered that with a little coaching and the correct interventions, curious, creative people are not just born: they can be created.

Stage & Screen

As an end of year treat, check out Dr. Ming's Keynote for Aberdeen's TechFest on "The Neuroscience of Trust"

We are booking dates for 2024! With engagements already secured in Paris, Stockholm, Maryland, Toronto, and more!

I would love to give a talk just for your organization on any topic: AI, neurotech, education, the Future of Creativity, the Neuroscience of Trust, The Tax on Being Different ...why I'm such a charming weirdo. If you have events, opportunities, or would be interested in hosting a dinner or other event, please reach out to my team below. - Vivienne

<<If you are interested in pursuing an opportunity with Vivienne in or around these locations, please reach out ASAP!>>

Research Roundup

Too much praise, too little challenge

When can help hurt? The education research literature is filled with examples of good intentions undermining student outcomes. A pair of recent articles highlight the potentially negative impacts of efforts to support students when those efforts unintentionally undermine motivation.

The use of praise in the classroom is sometimes used as a reward for students, encouraging deeper engagement, but when the praise doesn’t match the effort it has the opposite effect. For example, “when a child from a low-SES…background succeeded in school, teachers attributed this success more to hard work and delivered more inflated praise (e.g., “You did incredibly well!”) but less modest praise (e.g., “You did well!”)” to higher-SES students”. While this might initially increase that student’s motivation, the class as a whole noticed these instances of inflated praise and subsequently “perceived this child as less smart but more hardworking”. In the long run, this perception influences the original child’s own self-perception and sense of competence.

That feedback loop from teacher to class to student runs not just through praise but even help offered by classmates. Students clearly understand that peers can learn more from “hints vs. …correct answers”, but the hints are reserved for classmates perceived “more competent”. Where the “competent peers” receive hints, “incompetent peers” only get “direct answers”. These cycles of differential praise and help ends up undermining learner motivation and exaggerating preexisting differences within the classroom.

Rather than trying to build motivation on praise or comparisons or gamification, build into students a belief that their hard work will pay off.

Demotivation Nation

Want to undermine employee motivation? Weaken the bond between performance from reward.

When managers reveal a “discriminatory preference” favoring one kind of employee over another, all “workers reduce their work effort”. The erosion of the relationship between hard work and opportunity erodes effort across all workers, but the effects are “larger for those disadvantaged” by the bias. This “effort differential” leads to an inevitable secondary effect, managers “who did not [initially have] discriminatory attitudes judged the advantaged [workers] as more competent and deserving of workplace advancement”, which leads to more bias…to lower effort…to more bias…

Exposure to these sorts of biases, particularly over generations, transforms not just work effort but world view. Individuals without personal experience of intergenerational upward mobility are much more likely to hold “a more zero-sum mindset” in which others’ gains are their losses. Unsurprisingly, if in your subjective experience effort and reward are only weakly connected, you tend to support both “government redistribution” and “more restrictive immigration policies.”

These are patterns I see on both the right and left of the political divide, workers who feel the system works against them seek guarantees of well-paying working class jobs and protection from globalization.

In surveys over the last century, attitudes have “become 20% more zero-sum”, according to an article in the FT that echoes the findings above. “If someone’s formative years were spent against a backdrop of abundance, growth and upward mobility, they tend to have a more positive-sum mindset, believing it is possible to grow the pie rather than just redistribute portions of it. People who grew up in tougher economic conditions tend to be more zero-sum and skeptical of the idea that hard work brings success. These attitudes are perfectly rational”…if only to your subjective experience.

The Demotivation Nation is all of those people abandoned on the wrong side of the Chasm.

Follow more of my work at
Socos Labs The Human Trust
Dionysus Health Optoceutics
RFK Human Rights GenderCool
Crisis Venture Studios Inclusion Impact Index
Neurotech Collider Hub at UC Berkeley