Cubes versus naked women (books please)

What is YOUR choice?

What is YOUR choice?

In Sanjoy Mahajan’s 2009 course on teaching he states that

You know if you know anyone who’s a symphony orchestra player, they say, oh yeah, the best way to start hating music is to be a professional musician. They love music, and then they had to do it for pay, in all of a sudden they don’t like as much anymore, not all of a sudden, but slowly. So there are many, many studies about that– motivation.

So what you want to do really is to find intrinsic motivation. And so the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is fundamental. And what you want to try to do is create the environment always where the motivation is intrinsic, so that the questions are interesting.

So what that means is you don’t want to use bad questions that people don’t have an interest in, and then force them to be interested because you give them extrinsic motivation.That’s a fundamental bad choice, and then it’s being solved with the fundamental wrong approach.

Not being someone who can hear something like that and not want to see those “many many studies” for myself, I did some searching and found what looks to be the first publication in these “many many” (here). The experimental setup is pretty simple.  Research subjects, all students in an undergradaute psychology course  (who had to be the most well understood group of humans during the 1960s).  Importantly, Deci is honest in saying that the students were required to participate as a part of their introductory course, which right away sends up little red flags about their motivations, but moving on….

The subjects came to 3 sessions where they sat in a room “at a table with the puzzle pieces in front of them, three drawings of configurations to the right of them, the latest issues of New Yorker, Time, and Playboy to their left, and the experimenter on the opposite side of the table. ”  The puzzle was Parker Brothers Soma.  At each session they tried to make various designs with the cubes.  One group was paid $1 during the second session, the control group was not.  In the middle of each session, the experimenter leaves the room.  There is a mirror in the room.  Red flag #2: unless you are part of an pre-contact native tribe from South America, aren’t you always aware that mirrors in these situations are ALWAYS 2 way, and that you are being observed, and that you should do the OPPOSITE of whatever you would normally do by yourself.  But moving on….

For 8 minutes they are observed and the number of minutes they play with the puzzle cubes during this free period was counted.  Interestingly, the group that was paid DOES spend less time messing around with the cubes.  They repeat the experiment in different ways (verbal rewards don’t substitute for money, but the group that is verbally encouraged plays with the cubes more) and get similar results.  Its a small N, but interesting.

I am sure there is a lot of literature that follows this study.  And there are all kinds of reasons for me to suspect my own, untrained conclusions when I am so far out of my field.  But it seems to me that all they could conclude is whether the subjects did or did not play with the cubes, not whether they enjoy playing with the cubes. Being behind an obvious (I am assuming) two way mirror isn’t exactly a free-choice situation.  It certainly isn’t a situation in which I would pick up a Playboy magazine, that’s for sure.  Wouldn’t play with the cubes either.  Hopefully I would have brought my own book in with me.


About SubOptimist

I am an Associate Professor in the Science Department at Georgia Perimeter College, Clarkston. I teach introductory biology courses at both the majors and non-majors level in addition to microbiology. Previous to that I spent 7 years as a postdoctoral researcher on different viruses. While I don't miss being on the "grant treadmill", I think better when I write and miss writing up data for papers and grants; this blog helps me with that a little. And sometimes my kids' insanely funny and cute antics need to be shared with the world. Any view expressed in this blog is that of me personally and not Georgia Perimeter College or the GPC Clarkston Science Department.
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