Sunday, May 15, 2011

Two Questions Regarding Motivation...One Easy, One Hard

Today I spent a goodly amount of time reading Dewey's "Art as Experience" as part of the project I mentioned in my last post. I love reading Dewey because his thoughts and arguments are so rich and connected. I wonder if there is a topic that Dewey didn't write something relevant to.

So today's discussion involves two questions around motivation, one easy, one not so easy. The first question: what is motivation? I said this was easy, not simple. Motivation is impulse, volition, the will to act. It is the driving force, the thing that prompts you to act. Classic psychology divides intrinsic motivation from extrinsic motivation. The intrinsically motivated individual acts out of the pure pleasure or desire of the action. He or she enjoys the activity and thus, it fulfills a need within them. The extrinsically motivated person performs an activity because it yields something of value to him or her beyond the activity. The act itself does not have meaning except as it produces a desired result of another manner. Yet, even extrinsic motivation is in part intrinsic, since the desired result, although outside of the specific activity being performed, still drives behavior. In fact, were the intrinsic motivation not stronger than the extrinsic motivation, it is unlikely that the individual would consent to perform the act. Okay, so that was relatively easy. Not for the hard one.

Where does motivation come from? Put another way, why does motivation vary from person to person? What incites motivation? Maslow, arguably the classical approach to the question, argued that there is a hierarchy of need stretching from biological all the way through self actualization. According to Maslow, motivation is the result of need. As one specific need is satisfied, the next level becomes conscious, driving progressive need. In this sense, motivation is a yearning for equilibrium. Each new state represents a disruption, biologically, emotionally, socially, cognitively, etcetera. Self actualization is the "end state" where the individual strives for fulfillment as a fully conscious person.

Dewey, while not a psychologist, took up this topic in Art as Experience." He sought to argue for a new theory of art as stemming from the experience of the perceived, not unlike the classic idea that art is in the eye of the beholder. I don't know if this idea originated with him, although I suspect not, but he certainly added value to the discussion, especially where it pertains to understanding the role of sensation and perception in lived experience and motivation. Like Maslow, Dewey argued that life is comprised of a series of "disequilibriums" or disruptions and behavior is an attempt to adjust and restore equilibrium. He also divides the more "primitive" urges from the higher urges. Biological needs stand apart from social or cognitive needs.

Yet, despite these two similar and highly rationale viewpoints, there remains a more fundamental question involving what motivation really is. What is it, psychologically speaking, that prompts the recognition of disruption and the yearning to attain equilibrium. Mallow offers very little on this topic, but fortunately, Dewey goes deeper and broader than the psychologist. Dewey suggests that experience is what sets man apart from his animal counterparts. It is man's ability to conceive, to translate cause and effect into means and consequences that actually creates the disequilibrium at the higher levels. And even in the lower, more biological levels, it is the interpretation and experience of, for instance, hunger that prompts behavior. In short, inception lies at the heart of motivation. Dewey uses different terms than Maslow to describe the disequilibrium. He references tension as the result of perceived possibility and current status. What is most insightful about this presentation is the importance that experience takes in it. It is the sensation of understanding, the manner in which an individual interprets and comes to understand the stimulus that is important, not the event itself. When this occurs, when experience unfolds, the stimulation becomes the bearer of meaning, and cognition and motor skills become the mechanisms through which one expresses that experience.

To be continued....

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