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Intrinsic motivations

At Nesta we are managing the Innovation in Giving fund backed through £10 million from the Cabinet Office. The fund is investing in, supporting and growing innovative ideas that will bring about a step-change in the giving and exchange of time, assets, skills, resources and money.

At Nesta we are managing the Innovation in Giving Fund backed through £10 million from the Cabinet Office. The fund is investing in, supporting and growing innovative ideas that will bring about a step-change in the giving and exchange of time, assets, skills, resources and money.

In the context of this work we are doing some thinking around 'intrinsic motivations' - motivations that are driven by an interest or enjoyment of the task itself. I've just finished reading Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky, which provides some very useful thinking around intrinsic motivations and how we can harness them.

The book starts with the argument that we have a 'cognitive surplus' - we're much more educated than ever before, have much more free time, but spend far too much of it unproductively. The author argues that all the time we spend watching TV is wasted time that could be better spent elsewhere (except perhaps if you are using TV to learn by watching great programmes such as The secret history of our streets that have been on recently). He also argues that TV has helped drive materialism. People underestimate the importance of interpersonal relations to their life satisfaction and over-invest time in income-producing activities to buy more stuff, which actually doesn't make them as happy as spending more time with friends and family might. The scale of all this free time added together amounts to a huge 'cognitive surplus'.

The rise of technology is a means of using this surplus better and to enable us to reconnect with our intrinsic motivations. We've always been social and wanted to do things collectively and new technology is a means of harnessing that power.

The book argues that intrinsic motivations are fundamental to human nature and that satisfying them satisfies us. People gravitate towards experiences that they find rewarding and people intrinsically value connectedness. The book employs the arguments of behavioural economics that show that people's behaviour cannot be fully explained by their response to markets, no surprise to many non-economists perhaps. We don't act rationally in the way traditional economics expects us to and that money can actually remove intrinsic motivations to do something. People behave differently if they are doing something for love or money, and their attitude to something changes if they are being paid. It's interesting that our approach to 'work' sets up what we get paid to do in direct opposition to what are seen as more 'enjoyable' activities like leisure or play.

In fact, people are willing to do a lot for free that others get paid for in other contexts - whether through creative acts by amateurs, such as writing blogs for pleasure, or through the mass volunteering we have seen as part of the Olympics. But research has shown that if money is offered to reward volunteering the number of hours people volunteer actually reduces as their motivation shifts.

Understanding these issues should help us ensure that we can best support and promote new ways of giving that harness people's intrinsic motivations.

Author

Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Jo Casebourne

Director, Public and Social Innovation

Jo led Nesta's Policy and Research work on public and social innovation, working closely with colleagues in the Innovation Lab and Investments.

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