The opposite of extrinsic is what we call “intrinsic” motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated to do something (e.g., helping others, save energy) we do it not because of an external reward, but simply because we are personally convinced that it is the right thing to do. By “right” I don’t refer to vague cultural conceptions of good and evil, but rather to morality as an evolved capacity. Long-standing research has shown that the ability to be compassionate, empathize with others and to care about the natural world are evolutionarily adaptive behavioral traits. In fact, a psychological concept known as the “helper’s high” suggests that “doing good” actually makes people “feel good” both psychologically as well as physically (helping behavior often releases “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as oxytocin, a process which economists refer to as “warm-glow”). For example, an interesting recent study showed that people’s body temperature goes up when they are acting “green” (a literal warm-glow!) .

Unfortunately, lots of psychological research has also shown that external incentives “crowd out” (i.e., undermine) people’s intrinsic motivation to do good. For example, highlighting the monetary benefits of saving energy actually makes people less likely to do so. This is related to what we call negative “goal-replacement.” Consider that if you were originally intending to save energy because you strongly care about the environment but instead, now simply do so to win a competition, your pro-social motivation for caring about the environment has been “replaced” with a self-serving goal (i.e., winning). Think about other goals such as quitting smoking or losing weight. Are you more likely to achieve either of these goals as a result of a temporary competition or because you are internally convinced that it is the right thing to do? You might ask what the difference is if they both have the same outcome. There is a difference. Let's say that you do end up saving energy (temporarily) because it helps you lower your monthly bills. Will you still save energy when your income suddenly goes up?

I am not suggesting that fun challenges or competitions are not useful for raising awareness and achieving short-term goals. For example, take the ALS ice bucket challenge that went viral last year on social media: the campaign ended up raising millions of dollars (which is good). Yet, do we honestly expect that by pouring a bucket of ice over our heads people have come to care deeply about ALS as a cause? Of course not. Yet, this is important because, although sometimes a challenging competition can be a useful mechanism to achieve one-off, short-term pro-social goals, many urgent societal problems, from social inequality and poverty to global climate change, require long-term motivators of positive behavior change. Psychological research suggests that intrinsically-motivated behavior change is much more likely to be sustained in the long-term.

Let’s not forget that competition is not the only dominant force in nature, it is rivaled only by its better half: cooperation. Indeed, humans not only survived by competing but perhaps more importantly, we survived by cooperating with one another. In the words of Bertrand Russell, “the only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation."

It's time we start doing the right thing, for the right reasons.


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