The Up-to-Date Ancient Truth Behind Your Actions

Research into human motivation shows something surprising, yet intuitive. Cutting-edge, yet ancient. This week, I’ve been reading Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us which states that artificial reward and punishment structures are ineffective human motivators; autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the forces that genuinely drive human action forward.

We live in a pretty behavioral society – employers and educators, government and law enforcement expect that offering people money or grades will inspire the actions they want, and punishing will discourage the actions they don’t. It’s so foundational to our society that at first blush, it looks like a truism.

The thing is, it’s false.

According to the research outlined in Drive, rewards and punishments can temporarily inspire certain actions, but they also tend to undermine and kick out deeper motivation. Once an extrinsic motivation is offered, it distracts us from the intrinsic motivation. When children are rewarded for reading, they stop wanting to read once rewards are withdrawn. When salesmen work for commission, they exert amazing amounts of energy finding ways to make the system work best for them, regardless of its effect of customers or the company. When women are paid for donating blood, they become less likely to donate blood. Turns out “A little pain is worth it if I save a life” is more appealing than “A little pain is worth it if I earn seven bucks.”

The pragmatic approach of treating people like machines with simple input and output is unsupported by science. There’s something in the heart of the human that makes altruism, creativity, and purpose better motivators than cash, grades, and employability. Assembly-line life is modern; this idea is both up-to-date and ancient.

Twenty-first century research says, “It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them” (Drive, Daniel Pink, 44). I hear echoes of Christ, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it (Luke 17:33, ESV).

Twenty-first century random sampling leads Drive‘s secular author to the conclusion that, “[W]e know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice – doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves” (Drive, Daniel Pink, 145). And Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24).