The Neuroscience of Motivation identifies three core neural processes. The first of three articles discussed influencing motivation by upping the right rewards, and this second article looks at changing motivation through influencing the second process in that chain – comparative valuation.
Valuation is the means of comparison that decides what to do right now. It‘s neural pathway includes the striatum, insula, amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, within the PFC, the ventromedial region is associated with valuing gain and the orbitofrontal cortex with valuing loss, suggesting that each can happen separately and simultaneously. If this is the case, it would allow for not only faster and more thorough processing but could also explain why we can easily be in “two minds” about what to do if there isn’t a significant weighting one way or another.
The valuation pathway is necessary because of opportunity cost: doing one thing means not doing others. Researchers have likened reward valuation and comparison to a form of common currency (hence “valuation” rather than “evaluation”) to make decisions where options are varied and complex. The whole process is oriented toward our anthropological need for survival in the moment, so has biases that today aren’t always helpful & can be downright unhelpful. So, if you wonder why people, including you and I, make the choices they do, and how to influence that process for better outcomes, here’s why and how you can do that.
We are all heavily biased
The motivation to act or behave in any given way at any given time is shaped by comparative value (1). There are four key biases built into the valuation process that shape and distort our decision-making at every level of conscious awareness and deliberation to maximise expected short-term reward-for-effort/risk. They are:
Immediacy over delayed reward
When our ancestors lived in an unpredictable, highly dangerous and nutrient-poor world, they had to prioritise survival today over the potential of flourishing tomorrow. Life was literally moment to moment, day to day, in a way we can’t imagine. This meant doing now what supported survival now, &, thousands of years later, we maintain that urgency bias with short term effort and rewards valued more highly than those in the future, quite irrespective of the objective reality, and often importance, of either.
Today we watch TV rather than read a book because it is less effort for a faster reward. People use mobile devices while driving because it is rewarding to do so, irrespective of the increased risk of a serious crash or even a fine. We eat sweet, dopamine-triggering foods that bring pleasure in the moment but shorten our lives. Prioritising immediacy to the extent we do is not at all rational today for most action choices – but it is inevitably human.
Loss over gain
Again, as a survival priority, our ancestors had to prioritise the threat of a predator or competing tribe (prospect of loss), over the opportunity to explore, paint or collect the tastiest food (prospect of gain). It is the prospect of loss that allows our legal system to work as it does and allows our hierarchical systems to work at home and work as much as we might not always like them.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many in those countries celebrated their newfound freedom and independence. However, there were also many who ranked the gaining of freedom and opportunity as less value than the loss of structure, order, certainty and social welfare, with the Pew Research Centre finding as recently as 2016 that 5 ex-member countries still preferred Stalin (2), the oppressor who oversaw the deaths of 30 million, over Gorbachev, the one who granted them freedom and uncertainty.
It is the prospect of gain that sees us wanting to have holidays, pursuing hobbies, socialising and engaging with our work far beyond simple compliance. And there are behaviours that can be simultaneously oriented toward gain and loss (e.g., I may be thorough in my work because I want to see myself, and be seen by others, as more competent (gain), and to prevent the perception of incompetence and unreliability (loss).
For most people the prospect of loss generally receives twice the value of the prospect of gain, but there must be allowances for life experiences, general optimism, personal support, perceptions of risk, anxiety and other influences. Irrespective, it is almost inevitable that no one can always remove this bias, or even be aware of exactly how much influence it has in any given context. Our healthy amygdala simply won’t -and probably shouldn’t – allow it.
The problem with simply resorting to the more powerful threat of loss (e.g., “If you misbehave or under-perform, you’ll lose your job”) is in the response type it typically prompts. The avoidance of loss (an “avoidance motivational schema”) is likely to prompt a neurobiological response that is aimed at protection, with increases in emotionality and physicality somewhere on the fight/flight spectrum that are aimed at preventing the loss, perhaps by any means available or necessary. This means that the behaviours you get might not be the ones you hoped for. If this is a dominant motivational schema that you rely on to motivate actions, you can also expect disengagement, absenteeism, cheating, blame-shifting, retaliation & all the other sorts of behaviours you really don’t want, potentially including physical intimidation and violence. Through the impacts of chronic distress triggered by an environment dominated by perceived threats of loss, you’ll also be, in a very real sense, killing people.
On the other hand, although generally weaker, the prospect of gain involves dominance of an “approach motivational schema” which facilitates engagement, rationality, problem-solving, cooperation and discretionary effort. It is also a supporter of health, well-being and high quality, highly productive and innovative outcomes for all.
Big over small
On the basis that an individual was to decide between acting on a large effort/large reward option, or an alternative small effort/small reward option, with all other things being precisely equal, the large effort/large reward option is given a greater value. However, in practice this isn’t so simple, with greater prospect of loss and delayed gratification often associated with high reward options meaning this playing field is not level, and so smaller effort/reward actions are often preferred.
There is also the influence of stress management. For example, it might feel better to clear up a bunch of small challenges so you can focus on a single bigger challenge without distraction, an idea that is supported by the smaller, but fast and regular, rewards (feelings of achievement, stress reduction) that come with task completion at any scale. As a counter, there bigger challenges are often more mentally stimulating, which inherently an make them more rewarding. So yes, big is more motivating than small, but with many qualifications.
Intrinsic over extrinsic
Core differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are described elsewhere, with the key differences arising out of connection to basic needs (insula-related) and perceptions of control (amygdala-related). As explained so well by Self-Determination Theory (3), extrinsic motivation is oriented toward compliance (I will put in the minimum effort required to satisfy someone else), where intrinsic motivation is oriented toward fulfilment (I will put in more effort to increase my own satisfaction). Extrinsic motivation is, at best, an indirect path to fulfilment, usually leveraging tangible rewards, whereas intrinsic motivation is inherently rewarding at conscious and/or subconscious levels.
There is a very practical “compromise” between the two, where an individual can choose to internalise extrinsic motivations, either as identified self-regulation or, preferably, integrated self-regulation (3). In these cases, as with goal-orientation, an individual attaches a personal value to the action and/or outcome, most likely linked to the need for safety or basic need satisfaction. For example, a specific extrinsic motivation might be to be ranked at the top of the sales leader board, which can then be internalised through being perceived as a pathway to satisfying the basic motivational needs of empowerment (through displaying competence, autonomy, achievement) and identity (through protecting or enhancing self-esteem and social status).
Can we change motivations by changing biases?
For leaders, the question that arises is if and how valuation can be ethically influenced for more decisive, productive and fulfilling decisions. The answer is clearly YES. And also no…
We have a high level of control, if we choose to use it, in how we recognise and manage our own valuation biases to change our own motivation, actions and outcomes. Some of these methods are described below. However, as much as we may want to, and to some extent can, ethically influence the motivations, behavioural choices and efforts of others, our ability to mandate that can only occur where we have a power advantage and the outcome we are looking for is mostly, or in the first instance, one of compliance in avoiding a loss (e.g., employment termination) or achieving a gain (e.g., promotion or bonus) as an externally imposed consequence.
If we are looking for changes in sustainable, committed and ethical motivation through valuation bias adjustments in others, it needs to be a process they go through and a re-valuation that occurs within them. If one were to remove ethics, other things are possible, have occurred countless times throughout history, and continue to occur, arguably on a broader social scale today. However, as ethical leaders in trusted roles in an increasingly transparent world, the techniques below are aimed at improving sustainable, productive adjustments that benefit organisations AND the individuals involved in increasing opportunities for improved performance, engagement, fulfilment and well-being.
Bring the future forward, draw on character
The famed “marshmallow test” of 1970 / 1990 (4) showed that very young children who displayed delayed gratification were more likely than others to consequently display higher cognitive ability and self-regulation as adolescents, with likely future impacts on success and happiness through life. This suggested that the extent of immediacy bias is a trait, and therefore inherent and largely unchangeable. However, recent research (5) showed that there were many more influences at play (e.g., family, education, socio-economic status, peers, life experiences) on the ability of an individual to prioritise delayed gratification as adolescents and adults. This implies that immediacy bias is not a trait but a changeable, influenceable, and personally controllable part of motivation valuation.
There are a few tactics you can use to influence this. An effective method is to “time-travel”, so that you can place your mind at a time in the future and then reflect on the consequences and feelings of the action, or inaction, choices you have now. This can be reasonably short term (e.g., “I could go the gym or watch TV now – how would I feel about either choice 2 hours later?” or “I could eat a doughnut, or fruit, or nothing – what decision would I be happiest with afterwards?”) or longer term (e.g., “How would I feel tomorrow if I complete that non-urgent but important task now?” or “How would I feel in 3 years if I start studying hard for that degree now?” or perhaps even “How would I feel when I can afford that holiday by saving money now?” You can draw on bring forward felt rewards as a positive consequence (gain for acting now), or anticipation of future stress as a negative consequence (loss for not acting now) – both will work, and I often use them in tandem. (It is also a natural tendency, as part of the anticipation and learning process described in part 1, to bring forward felt rewards in any case, so enhancing this technique is not difficult.)
This is a simple technique that anyone can do – and help others do too. (e.g. “How do you think you might feel in X time if you decided to do Y now?”). But it won’t work as well if you use the question to coerce them (weak extrinsic motivation) – they need to do the imagining and make the decision, as part of internalising and committing (strong intrinsic motivation discussed in point 4). The goal here is to simply open up future-oriented thinking to helpfully influence current behavioural choices.
Another tactic is to appeal to your preferred identity. Are you the sort of person who puts off the harder choices and tasks? Or are you the sort of person who gets things done, even if they’re difficult or take a lot of time and effort? Certainly, the highest achievers constantly make longer term choices, including enduring short-term loss (e.g., effort, discomfort, boredom) and sacrificing short-term gain (e.g., pleasure, relaxation, small achievements) – so the question for all of us has to be one around whether we take the easier, less taxing, easy gain or prevention of loss now, or whether we are the sort of person who puts in the hard work to achieve goals that benefit ourselves and the people around us. Certainly, this is not only related to preferred identity as a concept, but character as a sign to yourself and those around you, especially where sacrifice is called for.
This technique can also be used to help motivate others (e.g., “Are you the sort of person who….” or “What does it say about you if you choose to…”) but is also consequently open to manipulation. If others are saying these sorts of things to you, try to be aware of their intentions, taking time to make your own judgements and choices.
Elevate the prospect & benefits of gain over the fear or negative consequences of loss
There are two big things you can do here. The first is to adjust perceptions through amplifying the prospects and rewards of gain, while down-playing the prospects and impacts of loss. This can be useful where perceptions of fear, risk or effort are exaggerated, and can be related to things like low confidence, anxiety, catastrophising and danger-associated life experiences. Visualising and describing detailed pictures of past successes, and what future success can look like, along with the implications to individuals and society at large, will help too. If you feel someone is trying to do this with you, be guided by your sense of their intentions – for whose benefit are they doing this? Are they helping or manipulating? How would you know? Can you take a time-out to think it through or get more information? Are they pushing for a commitment right now? Are they pushing your emotional triggers as a part of their “rationality”?
The second, and for managers most effective, transparent, sincere, empowering and engaging, is to actually, not just perceptually, amplify and communicate potential gains and minimise potential losses. For example, eliminating or minimising negative consequences of failure and blame (as distinct from poor effort or behaviour) while making personal and professional support and resources available (as distinct from micro-managing) is a simple and very achievable starting point where engagement, discretionary effort, autonomy and creative problem-solving are preferred.
How easy is this for any manager as a core part of empowering teams and positioning them for success? Very. How often have you experienced it, not just that one great time you can remember, but routinely? Probably not so much. Why? Because your managers, their leaders and their customers also value loss over gain, so that looking for, avoiding and solving problems naturally dominates much of their day, and therefore their thoughts and communications, if not KPIs, too.
There is a caveat here: Although we can try to be purely rational in thinking about gain and loss sums, that judgement sits below conscious awareness and rationality, living in implicit memory as well as our DNA. Rationality may dominate the “thinking” brain, but the stronger “feeling” brain is less easily convinced, creating a disorienting state of inconsistency that prevents positive commitment. In my therapy work I see this where clients want to make a change, set out the change and describe the benefits the change would make to them… but, despite it being of their own design and for their own benefit, sometimes don’t make it. In the end, their valuation pathway may well have felt, beyond all “rationality”, that it is a better gain/loss sum for them to stay with a familiar bad situation than risk failure or loss of control by pursuing an unfamiliar one. This reminds us that to increase motivational value, it often isn’t enough to simply address rational, obvious, stated or superficial losses or gains, or to use our own “common sense” in estimating how others might value their options. Especially where lifelong habits or deep-seated fears and worries are involved, you may never be able to know the extent to which they add weight to loss-aversion bias and the potential for changing its effect on personal motivational value.
Elevate big over small… by adding more small
The aversion many people have to bigger challenges can be amplified by the increased fear of loss that comes with a bigger, more complex effort, the sacrifice and the delay in gratification that it brings. Certainly, things are more likely to go wrong with a big challenge, and to happen earlier than any potential reward, accompanied by highly emotional, often blame-filled, conversations. No wonder people often steer away from the big, exciting challenges that would be so rewarding, and perhaps even defining for them.
We have already discussed how to influence perceptions of immediacy vs delayed gratification and loss vs gain, so let’s assume that, as a skilled leader increasing the motivational value for the big challenge, you have already added a safety net, amplified benefits, internalised what the achievement would mean and brought feelings of success forward.
The challenge is now gaining commitment to the size and scope – shifting an hour or two, or even a day or week or two, won’t help as much this time. There’ll also be new, unforeseen roadblocks, setbacks and difficulties which are inherently demotivating. This isn’t a set-and-forget thing at all, and it is likely that those setbacks will change the loss/reward sum. This isn’t just about enhancing dopamine-derived rewards, it can quickly become about dopamine deficiencies which drive us away from continued sacrifice toward some form of relief or gain, no matter how short-lived or superficial. The secret here is to not get to that stage – by design.
The best at sustaining continual discretionary effort and sacrifice are the makers of poker machines and video games. The goal (our goal) is always something big, but they want us to maintain commitment for the long term, so along the way there are many smaller dopamine-triggering rewards to keep us going. Poker machines do it through colour, lights and sounds that stimulate the brain, with small, inconsequential payouts that make people feel they are having a win when they objectively aren’t. Poker machines are addictive because of this constant stream of dopamine (6), being especially attractive (to the extent of being predatory) for people who may have stimulation and reward deficits in other parts of their lives. The ad-hoc, rather than routine, nature of gambling rewards is also disproportionately rewarding in comparison to expected rewards.
Video games are similarly rewarding, with small points, scores, equipment, skill and status rewards for small achievements. The more difficult the mission or task, the higher the rewards, both as those extrinsic rewards (no doubt at least partially internalised) and as more powerful intrinsic rewards through feelings of competence, autonomy, control and achievement – and through playing the highest difficulty level they can, not simply just getting through easily. More effort = more reward. There are also opportunities to satisfy the basic needs of connection through teamplay, and identity through competition and reputation. Using these mechanisms, video game designers attract hundreds of hours of discretional effort at a tangible cost for no tangible reward. The generations so often described as lazy and entitled don’t just volunteer, they forego easier pleasures and spend their own money to challenge themselves over long periods of time with no tangible rewards because of the intrinsic rewards available to them directly through and in proportion to their effort.
In these cases, the trick is to not simply rely on the final, big reward alone, but to add lots of short term and ad-hoc rewards all the way through. Think of it as being like eating 3 modest meals a day compared to one single feast at the end of each week. This is easy enough for most managers. Every big challenge has stages – so take the time to recognise them as they occur, taking time to reflect, with the people involved, on those achievements, whether or not they were entirely successful or particularly momentous. An effective manager will plan these milestones as an integral motivational and reward element of any big project or challenge.
The ad-hoc side is also important for felt rewards and increasing future motivation, as discussed in part 1. Why only wait for milestones, especially if it’s a hard grind or you get the sense that spirits are flagging? Thank, recognise, respect, praise and celebrate anyway! In my work, we randomly celebrate having helpful conversations, or exploring new information, or testing new concepts, irrespective of how or when they might “finish”, or whether others choose to act on the information and ideas we share. In this way we celebrate the small useful things, including effort, positivity, intentions and even some setbacks, on the way to achieving more significant things.
Elevate extrinsic into intrinsic
There are a couple of approaches to increasing value by linking extrinsic motivations with basic need fulfilment so that they become, at least partially, intrinsic. There are many ways this might occur.
For example, if an employee links fulfilment in their basic social needs (connection, identity) and neural consistency (compatible ethics, values, intuition) with a specific role, project or task, they are likely to increase the valuation given to those tasks, wanting to perform them to a high standard rather than simple compliance, even if they are not especially pleasurable. Volunteer work performed by millions of people around the world every day, often to a very high standard involving significant personal sacrifice, is a testament to the power of linking external demands with internal fulfilment.
Increasing autonomy, within or perhaps advancing the edges of competence (both elements of empowerment) is a very effective way of internalising an extrinsic motivation by increasing the control an individual has over their own action choices. (Control can be considered to be both an element of empowerment and a critical meta-need that enables autonomous action choices directed at the satisfaction of safety and all other basic needs, the absence of which heightens fear-based responses.)
This isn’t to say that employees should always get to choose if, what, how and when they behave and perform, as lack of structure at work can be disorienting and disempowering. All employees need information, certainty and clear boundaries to work to (also linked to empowerment) and, commercially, boundaries of performance and behaviour are essential to achieve organisational outcomes. The ideal here is to communicate and align purpose and boundaries, ensuring the employee and employer feel that competence and resources are adequate, and then let the employee self-direct and self-manage, rewarding them with control, respect, trust and autonomy. This allows the employee to use, and perhaps improve, their best skills at both task and self-management levels, without any hint of the disempowering, disengaging and value-reducing effects of micromanagement.
Examples of increasing value through internalising motivation might include “How would that feel to achieve that?”, “Is this a chance to use, display, prove or increase competence?”, “What would doing that personally mean to the people it benefits?”, “Is this a chance to act in accordance with my deepest values and beliefs?”, “This will please friends and/or increase popularity and social status”, “What would doing this say about my character?”, or, as a manager, “How would you prefer to go about this task?”, “Would you like me to provide any support or resources?”, and so on.
Another perspective: Self-Determination Theory on internalising to increase motivational value.
Self-determination theory describes a continuum in autonomy as essential for internalising extrinsic motivation, thereby adding an intrinsic element to increase its value. SDT describes degrees along an extrinsic/intrinsic continuum with four intermediate levels, two of which are helpful.
The first is self-regulation, which sees individuals perceiving their behaviours and performances as linked to their identity, and so being intrinsically motivated to act in ways that to live up to how they want to see themselves and be seen by others, even if they are not motivated by specific tasks. This is consistent with the basic need for identity, expressed as protection or enhancement of self-esteem and social status. (Read about the origin and neural basis for identity as a basic motivational need here). As a leader, exploring and amplifying links between preferred identity and displayed behaviour in ourselves and others is an effective way of increasing the comparative value of preferred action (i.e., behaviour, effort, performance) choices.
The second is integrated regulation, where an extrinsic demand becomes deeply important to not only a preferred image, but to basic beliefs and aspirations. There is mention here of a link between the action and personal goals, but I would add the caveat that, to be meaningful, a personal goal has to be inherently intrinsically-derived. In practice, this sees matches in values, beliefs and satisfaction of other basic needs (consider those things, for practical purposes in a workplace setting, to be “hard-wired”) aligning with action choices that also most effectively support the achievement of organisational goals. Trying to go against the flow here is likely to create a state of neural inconsistency, which significantly, if not terminally, reduces intrinsic motivational value.
As a leader, this firstly places emphasis on employee and team selection for fit in values and beliefs, as well as in matching how all basic motivations needs are satisfied by individuals as a matter of habit. If there is close alignment, expect engagement, high productivity, cultural fit and fulfilment to be possible, if not probable.
Secondly, leadership and management practices that continually, sometimes subtly and sometimes more overtly, link autonomy over behaviours and performance with fulfilment of basic needs in ways that align with shared values and beliefs, serve to re-stimulate and reinforce the greater intrinsic value associated with them.
In the real world, it is probably that for most employees most of the time, relying on purely intrinsic motivation that is also optimally productive in pursuing organisational goals and personal fulfilment is unlikely to sustainably achieve either. With that commercial and social reality in mind, integrated regulation, which creates boundaries within individuals can flourish, is most likely to be a better guide for increasing autonomy and control, in turn increasing both empowerment and comparative motivational value.
- Valuation is the process of comparing and choosing between various action options.
- Valuation can be cognitively influenced but is inevitably largely influenced, if not derived and determined, at a non-conscious level.
- Deeply held values, beliefs and habits are best thought of, in a practical sense, as “hard-wired”, and are highly influential on the valuation process, irrespective of “rationality”. Consequently alignment between organisations and employees should be a part of the recruitment process.
- Valuation is biased toward immediacy, prevention of loss, bigger rewards and intrinsic motivations. All can be ethically influenced using techniques such as those described in this article.
- To influence immediacy bias, bring the future forward or appeal to preferred identity.
- To influence gain/loss bias, amplify gains or risks (depending on what you want someone to do or not do) but be wary of what response system you are activating, and how that might play out.
- To influence big challenge attractiveness, reduce risks and add frequent expected and unexpected small rewards along the way.
- To influence intrinsic bias, leverage and amplify internalisation, linking the action or outcome to basic need fulfilment. However, while purely intrinsic motivation is theoretically ideal, integrated regulation is more practical and achievable, producing predictable, manageable, sustainable benefits for organisational outcomes and culture, as well as employee engagement, performance, behaviour, retention, fulfilment and well-being.
- Taking a broader and “less technical” view, also expect valuation to be affected from moment to moment by mood, people, familiarity, confidence, energy, health, overall fulfilment and other transitory influences which, individually and together, continually and variably impact these valuation biases.
- Rangel, A., Camerer, C., Montague, P.R (2008). A framework for studying the neurobiology of value-based decision making. Nature reviews neuroscience, 9, 545-556
- Pew Research Centre (2017). Religious beliefs and national belonging in Central and Eastern Europe: Views on role of Russia in the region, and the Soviet Union. https://www.pewforum.org/2017/05/10/views-on-role-of-russia-in-the-region-and-the-soviet-union/
- Gagne, M., Deci, E.L. (2005) Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of organisational behaviour, 26, 331-362
- Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., Peake, P.K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 978–986.
- Watts, T.W., Duncan, G.J., Quan, H. (2018). Revisiting the marshmallow test: A conceptual replication investigating links between early delay of gratification and later outcomes. Psychological Science, 29(7), 1159-1177
- Duhigg, C. (2012) The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York, NY, Random House