On motivation

November 20, 2020

We’re back here again. Although this time around we knew it was coming, at the end of this week Brandeis will switch to an all-remote format for the final week of classes and final exams. If you’re packing now, pulling out the suitcase or have already departed campus, you may be getting a strong sense of déja vù. I know I did last week. Of course, this time is vastly different—we’re all at least a little used to our classmates being in little postage stamp-sized boxes on our laptops and the special anxiety of not knowing if you’re muted or not. 

There was, however, a real sense that even though you were adjusting to an entirely new environment and unfamiliar situation, you needed to be doing more. I confess, I had a few attempts at baking—my banana bread was more successful than my blueberry muffins—but I never hopped on the dalgona coffee trend, and I resented the idea that you needed to worry about weight loss regimes or learning new languages or coding skills during quarantine. No matter how hard I tried though, I always found myself completely lacking in any motivation that others around me seemed to have. 

Motivation is a topic that’s been looked into time and time again by psychologists, who have an idea about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In simple terms, intrinsic motivation is motivation to do something based on the idea that it gives you a good feeling from doing it, extrinsic motivation being based on receiving a reward or wanting to avoid a punishment. Of course, any college student will tell you that motivation may come from one, both or neither at any one time—we’ve all had the “this assignment isn’t done, but I’m done with it” moment. A 2000 study by Ryan and Deci expanded that theory to include multiple forms of motivation, and the idea of amotivation: the feeling we just described and the feeling that I know I felt one too many times between March and the beginning of the semester. 

Setting aside the idea of the difference between amotivation and demotivation, in trying to research this topic I came across a paper that studied young learners of English at a boarding school in Turkey. When asked their motivations for learning English, answers ranged from ideas about foreign cultures to it being essential for professions, demonstrating a range of core motivations. You likely had a motivation when applying to Brandeis, or at the very least when you enrolled in a particular course for this semester—even “I thought it was interesting” can be a motivator. The researchers also found, in interviews with the students, that attitudes towards different tasks ranged across age groups—in short, none of the students talked about in the paper seemed to enjoy the textbook but all enjoyed other methods of learning. But what really stood out to me was the discussion section right at the end, on page 158: “…young children could easily label each other as the “best” or “weakest” depending on the feedback and praises they receive from the teacher.”

In a roundabout way, I find myself back at the dalgona coffee from the spring of this year. For those making the coffee, there was likely some sense of intrinsic motivation—creating this coffee they saw on TikTok gave them a good feeling personally. Me making banana bread that one time gave me a good feeling too! I understand entirely, but that feeling comes with a flipside too. What about those who see these bakes and weights plastered on their feeds? Perhaps that’s a form of extrinsic motivation, and a negative one at that. 

All of these studies, it goes without saying, were performed in non-COVID-19 conditions, before 2020 took its toll on all of us in vastly different ways. Health researchers are already aware of the fact that you cannot just issue stay-at-home orders to entire populations who are unfamiliar with that kind of control being exerted over them in that way without an accompanying emotional and psychological response. Suddenly we all faced entirely unnatural conditions where we were apart from our friends and, in some cases, our families. Some of us dealt with loss, all of us were confronted with political challenges and stepped up to necessary societal conversations. 

More than ever we’ve had to really reckon with what motivates us to do things. Put simply, if whipped coffee isn’t your thing, who needs it? And even in the course of stepping up to do important introspective work or facing political challenges, where the idea of saying “I don’t want to do this so I’m not going to” defeats the object entirely, it’s important to remember that motivation is deeply personal. Now more than ever, we have to work with what we can to do what we feel we need to do. 

Keep that in mind as we all head home this week. This is difficult, and there is no shame in feeling amotivation or demotivation (and hopefully a genuine psychologist can explain the difference to me). So long as you do what you need to do to stay afloat, whatever that may be, everything else is surplus. Now is definitely not the time for extra stress from a whipped coffee that you can’t seem to get the hang of.

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