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June 13, 2016

Harry Harlow and the Monkeys (old post I repurposed...Enjoy!)


For those of you that do not know this, I am a huge Dan Pink fan. Pink has written several books that are definitely worth the time reading, especially A Whole New Mind and Drive. The focus of this Friday's conversation is based on some of the things I have gathered from the book Drive by Dan Pink (a great deal of the future conversations will come out of these readings). Anyways, Dan Pink spends a great deal of time on the topic of motivation, specifically instrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. This is a topic that intrigues me and it will you too if you ever decide to try one of his books. 

In the 1940s a man named Harry Harlow conducted experiments with eight rhesus monkeys for a two-week period. The task was for the monkeys to solve a simple 3-step puzzle that required them to pull out a vertical pin, undo the hook, and lift up the hinged cover. This would be a super easy task for the normal human but seemingly difficult for a monkey in a lab. To make a long story short, these monkeys (left alone) began to figure out these puzzles and became rather good at solving the problem. Now because there were no rewards, such as food, praise, etc, Harlow questioned why they were able to figure this out. Scientists at this time knew of only two drives that motivated humans. One, was biological...hunger, thirst, etc. The second, rewards and punishments, also not present in this experiment. So what was it?? 

Harlow deduced that there is a third drive, "the performance of task." The monkeys performed the task simply because they found it gratifying to solve the puzzles. It seemed they actually enjoyed it! Harlow eventually called this drive "intrinsic motivation." They later tried similar experiments but added "rewards" such as raisins or other treats for completion of the puzzle. The scientists believed that by adding the external motivator that surely the monkeys would perform even better. Interestingly enough it was discovered that the monkeys actually performed worse. "Introduction of food in the present experiment," Harlow wrote, "served to disrupt performance, a phenomenon not reported in the literature." This was an interesting finding that ultimately lead to Harlow leaving the field...not because of success but because he was "run" out due to it not aligning with conventional wisdom.

What does this mean for us??? Humans react the same way (adults and kids). The carrot and stick approach may work in the short run but over time the "prize" has to significantly increase or the kids simply begin to lose interest in that motivation. As educators we have to continue to look for ways to develop that third drive (intrinsic motivation) in our students. We have to continuously look for ways to motivate these students not for the rewards they receive but because they have pride in what they do and they want to succeed. This is not an easy task but the smiles on the faces of those unmotivated students that finally feel accomplishment is our own little instrinsic motivation. Let us continue to strive to find ways to motivate the un-motivated as well as those that have already set specific goals for themselves.
MS

This is one of the many interesting stories/studies you will find in books such as Dan Pink's Drive. 
Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin Group: New York.

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