The promise of a reward can make us work harder, but are we all motivated in the same way? In his latest paper, Dr Sanjay Manohar, Junior Research Fellow at LMH, examines this question.

As the academic year finishes and final exams approach, whether or not you feel motivated can make a big difference on how long you can revise and how productive you are. But are all we motivated in the same way? Dr Sanjay Manohar is a Junior Research Fellow at LMH, and a Clinician Scientist Fellow at the Nuffield Department of Cognitive Neurosciences. He is interested in what drives motivation. “Motivation is a part of our everyday lives, but is remarkably hard to study, because we are each motivated by different things, to different extents.” Rewards are well known motivators. For example, the prospect of a gold medal might motivate an athlete to perform better in a competition than in training. But is this the only mechanism by which a reward can be motivating?

Dr Sanjay Manohar

To examine this question, Dr Manohar and his team asked participants to complete a simple task- moving their eyes as quickly as possible towards a target, allowing for a very precise measurement of effort. Half of the participants were told they would be given a reward dependent on how quickly they could perform this task, while a second group was promised a reward independent of performance. As expected, the participants moved their eyes quicker, and more accurately, when they knew that a reward was dependent on their performance. However, a guaranteed reward, in its own right, was able to increase performance, albeit to a lesser extent than a performance-based reward. In other words, sometimes even the mere prospect of a guaranteed reward can motivate us to do better. Interestingly, there was no correlation between the individuals that did better in the context of a reward dependent on performance versus guaranteed reward. This suggests two separable, independent types of motivation. “Both of these types of reward coexist in our world”, explains Dr Manohar. “For example, in some cases we get paid according to our performance while in others with a regular fixed salary. Our study suggests that this is because both factors are motivating, but different people might weight them differently and independently”.

This study is part of a new way of studying motivation. “New ‘neuroeconomic’ methods postulate that we have a sense of 'inner value' that is perhaps like a bank ledger, and lets us weigh up benefits and costs of various options. This approach allows us to think of motivation in quantitative terms. I think these methods will eventually allow us to discover why some things feel hard or effortful -- such as paying attention, holding things in memory, self-restraint, or physical exertion -- whereas other things do not.” In his next research project, Dr Manohar and his team hope to continue using these methods to examine decreases in motivation in a disease setting. “60% of patients with Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease have clinically significant reductions in motivation. I will be studying whether clinical apathy in patients affects one or both subtypes of motivation.”

Image by via a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

What's your motivation- by Atlasowa (CC BY-SA 2.0)