A young friend of mine in her twenties was recently discussing with me that if she decided to go to graduate school, she would like to do research into intrinsic motivators. Her desire triggered something in me, and, although I don’t do research in the sense of traditional social science methodology, I do like to explore ideas as a social philosopher. So I decided to anticipate my friend’s studies a little bit and explore the relationship between intrinsic motivators and modern society.
Initially, I want to delve into not only intrinsic motivators but also instrumental motivators. It is my contention that, as we move away from primary experience in modern technological society, we are also moving away from intrinsic motivators. As we move away from the immediacy of experience, we also move away from the immediacy of motivation, doing things for their own sake. When we do things for their own sake, we are doing things that stimulate us to life at the deepest levels of our being. Things that stimulate our abilities, our personality, our character. Things that relate to our nature.
All this is distinct from those things in our lives that motivate us instrumentally. Instrumental motivators don’t take into consideration our individual natures. They frequently take into consideration our basic survival needs and our desire for material rewards. We work in order to make money in order to survive. And in order to buy material products and services. We may not enjoy the work at all. But we do it because it is a means to an end. Many people spend their whole adult lives in careers that they hate, but they continue in them because of the material rewards and because of the prestige attached to their careers.
In addition, people today have to put up with the sensory distortion generated by the technology involved in so many modern professions. The abrasive tension pockets of many machines used by so many modern factory workers. The experiential vacuums of all the computers used by all the modern white collar workers at their desk jobs. Overstimulation and understimulation. Here are experiential states for which our beings were not built. So we put up with work based on sensory distortion, work that can make us feel sensorily uncomfortable, in order to make a living and survive, and in order to enjoy the material goods and services we have come to crave.
In today’s world, long-range planning has come to dominate the thinking of modern parents and children alike. Particularly for middle and upper class families, a child has to go the right preschool, in order to get into the right grammar school, in order to get into the right high school, in order to get into the right college or university, in order to get into the right graduate school, in order to get the right prestigious job. Each stage of education is increasingly dominated by its instrumentality in being able to successfully navigate the next stage of education so as to be able to ultimately achieve a successful prestigious lucrative work career.
Granted that for many years, parents have encouraged their child to do well in school in order to help him get a good job. But never before has competition at each stage of education been so intense. Even extracurricular activities have to be carefully planned for maximum impact for academic admissions and corporate acceptance. Meanwhile, it makes it much more difficult for students to live the moment and to actually enjoy and appreciate their educational experience. Their instrumental motivators are simply too large and overwhelming, and they crush whatever intrinsic motivators may be available to fully experience.
To a certain extent, we can say that always living for the future means that one can never be fully grounded in the present. One is holding off fully grounding oneself in order to be able to continually impel oneself forward. But when the first goal is temporally so far away, one has to be able to plan to hold off so many temptations to ground oneself. The best way to do that is just to continually live in a holding pattern, to continually live in an experiential vacuum. Continually live in a psychological state where the opportunity to take advantage of intrinsic motivators is minimal.
Finally there are those people who don’t enjoy relationships for the intrinsic joy they bring, but only for how they are instrumental to getting access to other relationships or other life situations that offer more power. People like this are really incapable of intimacy, incapable of getting access to emotional grounding. As such people hop from one relationship to another, they are constantly experiencing emotional numbness from the experiential vacuum that they have created for themselves. The people with whom they relate are simply free-floating figures who may offer access to power but no deep emotional bonding. How can there be deep emotional bonding, when a person is being used for a shallow instrumental purpose.
Starting with our shallow interactions with our modern technology, the shallow instrumental approach permeates how we conduct our lives and how we relate to others. Yes, instrumental motivators have always been a part of human life to some extent, but not to the extent that they exist today. And intrinsic motivators have been so suppressed by them that it becomes hard for many of us to know who we really are anymore and what we are really feeling. As a result of our loss of intrinsic motivators, we are losing our capacity to feel really human.
© 2019 Laurence Mesirow