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Friday, October 29, 2004

Why I am not an academic psychologist

Part one in an infinite series.

Ok, quick. What's your take on human motivation, or more precise, the things that make you happy, or merely get you off?

You can say something like this:

Good motivation is caused by good work, good friends, good family, good times, and good sex. Bad motivation is caused when these things aren't good, or when they get in each other's way (sort of like having to work on super-bowl weekend).


You can buy into this alternate psychological view of motivation, called self-determination theory, or 'I determine it myself' theory.

According to the definition found on its web site, hyper-linked below:

"SDT (Mezmer' take: sounds like a female reproductive disease) is based on an organismic (not to be confused with orgasmic)-dialectical meta-theory, which begins with the assumption that people are active organisms, with innate tendencies toward psychological growth and development, who strive to master ongoing challenges and to integrate their experiences into a coherent sense of self. This natural human tendency does not operate automatically, however, but instead requires ongoing nutriments and supports from the social environment in order to function effectively. That is, the social context can either support or thwart the natural tendencies toward active engagement and psychological growth. Thus, it is the dialectic between the active organism and the social context that is the basis for SDT's predictions about behavior, experience, and development."

Guess which one makes sense?

Guess which one is obscure enough to enable you to charge money to gullible people?
Bingo! Now that wasn't too hard!

For people who have to work for a living, definitions like the simple one I offered work just fine. But for people who have to work at being psychologists for a living, bullshit reasons are necessary to justify their meaningless lives as academics. Although this writer often reads many highly convoluted journal articles and scientific texts, and can derive from them at least a kernel of meaning, no such luck with this SDT thing. That ordinarily would be good, since outside of those poor psychology undergraduates who would be saddled with the thankless task of learning about it, the SDT people would mainly have themselves to listen to in their annual conferences held at the Motel 6 meeting room in lower Manitoba.

No such luck though. Rather than wallow in their own gibberish, they've sauntered out into the semi-academic world of education. Education and educational psychology is a perfect breeding ground for muddled thinking, since educational administrators and their evil henchmen (henchpeople?) of educational psychologists are generally bureaucratic types who are more concerned about their pension plans than practical ones. Furthermore it doesn't help that educational psychology does not attract rocket scientist minds, and is usually looked upon as a slightly more difficult elective than basket weaving.

So pity the poor teacher, who is saddled not only by stupid administration, but stupid theories of educational management that have as much motivational resonance and validity as the well known and highly 'productive' motivational properties of communistic or Islamic politics.

So what are the SDT people trying to foist down the throats of our educational establishment? It has to do with something called extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. On the surface, this concept does seem a bit sensible. We are motivated by extrinsic objects like money, sex, food, gold ribbons, etc. and by intrinsic objects like pride, satisfaction, love, etc. However, rather than having these things represent different sides of the same coin (e.g. I got my trophy and thus I feel proud), the SDT people represent them as two separate processes that mysteriously intermingle and otherwise fight it out.

To get their point across, the following type of psychology experiment is often quoted as proof positive that there are obscure metaphorical intrinsic and extrinsic psychological forces that are fighting it out for control of our psyche. Take a child and offer her a coke. Normally, she will accept the coke and profess that she likes cokes. However, offer her ten dollars to drink the coke, and afterward she will say she doesn't like cokes. You see, the extrinsic reward of money has somehow squelched the intrinsic reward of liking cokes. Using experiments like this, educational psychologists influenced by the SDT party line have thus come to the earth shattering conclusion that extrinsic rewards like gold stars, ribbons, awards, etc. are actually harmful to motivation, and should be abandoned in our schools. Presumably, they would have students dance about the teacher in a blissful state of spontaneous motivation like Barney the Dinosaur and his friends, but that's another story.

Of course, pragmatic folks and not a few pragmatic psychologists have had the temerity to challenge this crackbrained idea. But this has ironically made SDT become even more popular. That's because SDT people needed more than a bullshit reason for human motivation. They also needed a bullshit controversy that could generate a lot of journal articles, a lot of heat, and a black hole of luminescence that would eventually suck the entire subject matter of psychology into its depthless maw.

Unfortunately, the intrinsic-extrinsic motivation controversy is not only played out on the SDT website, but all over the web. Sadly, since the great preponderance of psychology websites are written by witless morons whose aspiration of psychological importance is a guest shot on Oprah, the SDT notion of separate intrinsic and extrinsic motivational forces has taken the fundamentalist aura of Biblical cant. Thus, this 'controversy', although still with us, is nonetheless settled due to the unassailable wisdom of SDT research and theory.
To which I Mezmer, delicately respond: NO!

As controversies go, the intrinsic-extrinsic motivation argument must rank as one of the most useless, puerile, and stupid exercises in academic history, since it profoundly misrepresents what the psychology of learning (which is not by the way the same as educational psychology, as it actually involves literally and figuratively brains) tells us about motivation. Indeed, as learning theory tells us, as well as simple common sense, we are not and can never be rewarded by things, but rather by the information denoted by things. Thus, an extrinsic motivator such as money does not reward us because of itself, but because of all the things you can get with money and what receiving money denotes in a social context. Thus if I receive ten bucks for drinking a coke, the money may denote the fact that the coke is really not very good, since why else would someone give me money to drink coke? On the other hand, if I get ten million dollars for playing on a football team, that money denotes not that playing football is awful, but rather that lots of folks value football.

If you want people to be creative, interesting, and be good conversationalists, you simply reward them for being so. And if you want people to recite Shakespeare, go to church, and sing opera tunes, then you likewise have to organize the subtle rewards that make it rewarding to do these things. But by eliminated courses in the fine arts, dumbing down our curriculum, and erasing merit systems and school discipline, these rewards have been all but erased. Pathetically, many educators and educational psychologists have ignored the obvious, and have settled on extrinsic motivators as the true problem. An easy cop out if you think of it. (Just blame the behaviorists for all our woes!!!)

Is it any wonder that I think most psychologists are intellectual twits?

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