Intrinsic Motivation can be Aversive

A few days ago, a friend of mine, Matt Welch, wrote something on his blog that totally blew my mind.

There’s been so much conversation lately, on this blog and others, debating the use and value of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (or reinforcers) in the classroom.  But what Matt brilliantly pointed out here was that we have only been discussing positive consequences:

“Setting aside whether or not the intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation distinction is valid, another question comes up — why is it that we characterize programmed positive reinforcement as artificial and prone to undermine intrinsic motivation but the myriad of programmed negative reinforcement contingencies, punishment contingencies, and forms of mildly aversive control we utilize are not also characterized as artificial and thus undermining ‘intrinsic motivation’?”

Isn’t that fascinating?  I just hadn’t thought about it before, but Matt’s right.  The only discussions that I’ve heard criticizing arranged (i.e., “artificial”) consequences focus on things that kids earn, such as stickers, points, praise, etc.  But what about the arranged consequences that are aversive?  Consequences that are intended either to decrease a behavior (i.e., punishers) or to increase a behavior by allowing kids to avoid something undesired (i.e., negative reinforcers).  How do we consider those in this context?

I’ve just started thinking about this myself, so I don’t have an answer to this.  I think it’s safe to say that just because motivation is intrinsic (i.e., naturally occurring and not arranged) doesn’t mean it’s desirable.  I hate to think about a kid working hard just to avoid feeling stupid; but at the same time I recognize that this is the flip side of the coin to kids working hard to feel smart.  In fact, there’s really no way to separate the two, is there?

But can we make the argument about aversives that is the corollary to the argument about positives?  Does an arranged aversive consequence undermine a “natural” aversive consequence?  Let’s take an example: The current argument is that if a student earns points for reading a book that the points undermine the student’s feeling smart for reading the book successfully.  Does it follow that if a student LOSES points for not reading a book that this point loss undermines the effectiveness of the student feeling stupid for not being able to read?

I think many would suggest that it’s moot because we don’t want to be using aversives in the first place.  But again, I’ll suggest that the feeling smart/feeling stupid dyad (as just one example) is inseparable.

So here’s the question for us to tangle with: If a student gets a bad grade from a teacher, does that make the student feel any less stupid?  And is that bad?  Is it good?

You can follow Matt Welch on twitter @welchmj.  The image that appears here originally appeared at

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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13 Responses to Intrinsic Motivation can be Aversive

  1. Matt Welch says:

    Perhaps something else to consider when thinking about aversive consequences versus positive consequences, whether programmed or not, is that, all else being equal, aversives are seen to suppress behavior overall (sometimes including behaviors we do not wish to suppress) while positives tend to increase rates of behavior — this may be meaningful when we want students to be creative, to try new skills or learning situations, or to acheive a level of fluency such that they then generate new skills or solutions by combining other things they have already learned. How often do we really do something creative because we’re afraid of screwing up/being punished?

  2. Matt Welch says:

    I really should look up some references. Its one of those truisms one retains from grad school — I’m hoping the nuances and subtleties of that have not worn off over the years …

    • karen mahon says:

      I’d love to see some refs because if it’s a truism from grad school then it’s one that I missed! 🙂 I would be surprised if negative reinforcement suppressed rates; range, perhaps.

  3. Pingback: More on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation « Wisconsin Association for Behavior Analysis

  4. Matt Welch says:

    And its true I may have spoken too broadly. For one thing, I know (to support the argument against what I wrote above), I remember an old Iwata study showing approximately 33% of participants in a study of discrete trial training were primarily responding correctly to avoid the correction procedure — so negative reinforcement was clearly motivating learning in that case.

    So far I have not been able to come up with clean references for my assertion (not that I won’t look some more). Some folks have pointed me towards Sidman’s examination of learned helplessness (or extinction of all avoidance or escape responses), but such a situation does not seem to map on to most (or almost any?) classroom situations (I would hope). An interesting, although old, reference is the following, which spent a fair amount of time examining the role of punishment in educational practices:

    They note that sometimes peer responses are suppressed by witnessing punishment, and that general response suppression or disruption of behavior overall tended to be with the sorts of punishing consequences most of us would consider extreme (not the sort of more socially-related or conditioned punishment or aversive consequences one would typically find in day to day use).

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Matt- I need to read the link that you posted, but the Sidman Avoidance procedure seems a tough mapping to education because, if I recall, Sidman Avoidance includes the delivery of shock without a warning signal unless the lever pressing occurs. I’m having trouble thinking of an “unsignaled” corollary for the classroom. What do you think? It seems like the approach of the teacher, the incomplete work, etc., could all be signals for an upcoming aversive?

  5. Allan Katz says:

    The question should be if we should grade at all – assessment is a conversation , not a symbol
    Also depends on one’s goals – high test scores or kids that are curious about their world and love learning.

    A grade = smart kid , bad for the kid as Carol Dweck shows they are less likely to engage in more challenging learning in fear of failing

    Bad grade – stupid kid – the same problem as an A grade – kid has a fixed mindset and success and failure is not based on effort and application but whether you are smart or stupid

    kids need a vision of the future , a picture of their potential selves

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks for the comment, Allan. In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t agree with Carol Dweck’s conclusions. I know that she is well-respected in her discipline; she just has a different philosophical orientation and approach to research design than I do.

      To address your points, can you help me understand what you mean by “assessment is a conversation, not a symbol?” I’m not sure what that means.

      When I used the example of grades, I didn’t mean to suggest that grades are the only source of extrinsic motivation. Teacher or parent approval or disapproval could also be sources of extrinsic motivation. That said, I don’t think extrinsic factors are the only ones that contribute toward kids feeling smart/stupid. They also feel smart or stupid based on their achieving success (or not); by getting the problems right or wrong; etc.

      I get that you would like to eliminate the extrinsic factors; what I’m trying to understand is whether or not an argument for removing the aversive extrinsic factor is parallel to the argument for removing the positive extrinsic factor: that it undermines the effectiveness of its corresponding intrinsic factor, aversive or positive, respectively? Or is it impossible to separate the positive and aversive properties of the intrinsic factor itself, as I suggested in my post? Or something else entirely?

      • Erin says:

        Karen, would you mind elaborating on why you don’t agree with Carol Dweck’s conclusions? I’m trying to get the lay of the land when it comes to rewards and praise, intrinsic versus extrinsic reward. Much of this is conflicting with my laywoman’s understanding, which was informed by books such as Po Bronson’s ‘Nuture Shock’ (which I believe was based partly on her work). [BTW, I am the mom of a 3-year-old who may receive some ABA…. I’m trying to quick read up on concepts and somehow ended up here!! Good stuff on your site!]

  6. Allan Katz says:

    Assessment is not a spreadsheet — it’s a conversation.- this is from blog.

    ‘Assessment OF learning is typically defined as a summative evaluation that usually takes the form of a grade that judges a student after they are done learning.’

    Grades bring learning to an end, ends the process. At most it is a reward/punishment for what you did. The message that you are now smart or stupid defines the self as an object

    ‘Assessment FOR learning is typically defined as a time for formative feedback that helps students learn from their successes, failures, mistakes and misconceptions. This feedback is timely and informative in nature rather than judgmental or evaluative.’

    IMHO people who are intrinsically motivated focus on the process , the non-self . Being considered smart or stupid is certainly not a product of a growth mindset, focus on the process.

    If positive reinforcements get in the way of intrinsic motivation and we are only talking about control by seduction how much more so control by punishment. Honey catches more flies than vinegar. People don’t learn from bad experiences , consequences, punishment etc – see how many returning prisoners there are etc. People change when they are given a vision for the future , a different view of the ‘ possible self ‘ and their needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are met

    Here is an eg – A husband screws up in the home and feels pretty bad about it , his wife comes home and shouts at him. Her reaction does not reinforce his negative feelings about screwing up , in fact there will be less internalization of what happened. The focus shifts away from his mistake and now the focus is on his wife’s response. His reasoning now – my mistake is that I got caught . His thinking is driven by what will I get or what will happen to me and not ‘ what type of person do I want to be ‘

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  8. Pingback: What is Self-Motivation, Anyway? | disrupt learning!

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