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Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us [Book Review]


Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is similar to the author's other book (When) in terms of structure.

The “surprising truth” the author is trying to reveal in Drive is that external rewards and punishments (a.k.a. carrots and sticks) can work nicely as motivation for algorithmic tasks, but they can be devastating for heuristic ones. Furthermore, if the task is inherently enjoyable, adding certain kinds of extrinsic rewards can often dampen motivation and diminish performance.

Principal-agent Theory
The author highlights the “principal-agent theory”, an elaborate econometric model constructed by Russian economist Anton Suvorov to demonstrate that “if-then” motivators and other extrinsic rewards are like illegal drugs that foster a deeper and more pernicious dependency. So, for example, if you pay your son to take out the trash, you've pretty much guaranteed he will never do it again for free. “What's more, once the initial money buzz tapers off, you'll likely have to increase the payment to continue compliance.” That's because the existing reward feels less like a bonus and more like the status quo, forcing you to offer larger rewards to achieve the same effect.

In addition, the author argues against combining allowances with chores. By linking money to the completion of chores, parents turn an allowance into an “if-then” reward. The consequence is dire. “It converts a moral and familial obligation into just another commercial transaction – and teaches that the only reason to do a less-than-desirable task for your family is in exchange for payment.”

Self-determination Theory
Convinced that our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed, the author outlines the self-determination theory (SDT), which includes the positive psychology movement, to argue against the idea of management (of people, not systems).

“But today [sic] economic accomplishment, not to mention personal fulfilment, more often swings in a different hinge. It depends not on keeping our nature submerged but on allowing it to surface. It requires resisting the temptation to control people – and instead doing everything we can to reawaken their deep-seated sense of autonomy. This innate capacity for self-direction is at the heart of Motivation 3.0 and Type I behavior.”

Accordingly, recent behavioural science studies have shown that autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.

Here's the not-so-flattering truth: Some parts of the book become quite repetitive after you've read several chapters. If you want to save time, skip to Part Three (“The Type I Toolkit”) to get the gist of this book and much more.

Be warned. There are fillers at the end of the book – recommendations of books to read, list of gurus to follow, shameless plugs to the author's other books.

If you’re a parent, read this book to understand why it's so hard to motivate your kids, especially if you use incentives as a reward for achievements.

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