Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Monkeys, Raisins and Intrinsic Motivation

I’m not keen on experiments involving animals I have to admit, but one that always tickles me involved some rhesus monkeys, a simple puzzle and some raisins.

In 1949, way before the Nintendo DS and Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training came on the scene, Harry Harlow, a Professor of psychology with an interest in motivation, gave eight monkeys their own primitive, but nevertheless mind challenging (for a rhesus monkey, at least) toy.

To call it a toy would have been a bit of a stretch of the imagination in fact; even 60 years ago it would only just have pipped a chunk of coal and a tangerine to the post on the average kids’ Christmas wish list.

The contraption consisted of just a block of wood with a hinge screwed into the top; and the objective of the puzzle was simply to release the hinge by sequentially removing a hook and a pin.

I know…the sense of satisfaction derived from successfully opening a hinge doesn’t sound like much; and as challenges go, it’s unlikely to qualify you for Mensa…or even the Krypton Factor. But in the days before Grand Theft Auto and Xbox’s, what else was a rhesus monkey to do when left to its own devices in a cage for two weeks?

And that was the purpose of the experiment; Harlow simply wanted to see what the monkeys would do.

Would they sit there day-in-day-out scratching their backsides and binging on peanuts and mangos until Bulimia took a grip, or would they try to utilise their two weeks of solitary confinement constructively?

It was the latter.

With no prompting whatsoever, curiosity and intrigue engulfed the rhesus monkey’s little monkey brains; and with playful, but determined zeal they almost immediately settled down to solving the puzzles laid before them.

Was their enthusiasm for the puzzles short-lived; driven purely by the sheer excitement and novelty factor of being stuck in a cage with a block of wood and a hinge?

No, on the contrary; over the course of the two week experiment these incarcerated monkeys became so increasingly skilled at puzzle solving that by the end, they were able to successfully solve well over 50 percent of the rudimentary hinge-centred puzzles presented to them in less than 60 seconds…just as fast as Nicholas Cage can steal a car.

And here I am, first introduced to the Rubik’s cube when I was eight, and thirty years later I still haven’t figured it out…although I am pretty deft with hinges these days. Eight times out of ten I am pleased to say, I can now figure out if a door opens by pulling or pushing it in less than 60 seconds too.

Intrinsic Motivation

Harlow was the first psychologist to question the still pervasive myth that primates – a group to which we too of course belong – are motivated purely by biological drives; or alternatively, by the pursuit of reward or the avoidance of punishment.

As he put it:

The behaviour obtained in this investigation poses some interesting questions for motivation theory, since significant learning was attained and efficient performance maintained without resort to special or extrinsic incentives.

In other words, the monkeys didn’t say to themselves, “Well…if I can’t hump it, eat it or drink it, then I ain’t interested”; neither did they reflect for a moment and think, “What’s in it for me?”

Instead, without prospect of sex, an extra big juicy mango, an appreciative round of toddler-inspiring applause or even the fear of an electric shock to jolt them into monkey-shrieking compliance, these eight little rhesus monkeys nevertheless decided to invest their time, attention and effort in an apparently worthless task.

Why would they do such a thing; what could possibly have been their motive?

As Harlow put it in his findings:

The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.

Those little rhesus monkeys figured out those puzzles just because it was fun; doing so stoked their interest, fired their curiosity and gave them a sense of intrinsic satisfaction.

No reward needed; no desire to hump the hinge; they simply did it just for the sake of doing it.

Human Nature

That was all just an elaborate introduction to a point I’ve made many times. Like those rhesus monkeys, we don’t need much coxing to want to do worthwhile things, we like doing them for their own sake too.

Positive psychologists have been stressing the point for years. Abraham Maslow said that we had an innate ‘need for meaningful work, for responsibility, for creativeness…for doing worthwhile things’; Edward Deci, a contemporary, said that we have an, ‘inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise our capacities, to explore, and to learn.’

Give us a block and a hinge, and like the rhesus monkeys, we’ll try to figure it out; even if we don’t get anything in return.

Make your own; it’ll offer hours of entertainment on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I guarantee.


Who cares how we get motivated though, as long as we get done whatever it is we need to do?

Whether it’s the satiation of a biological drive, the prospect of an external reward, the avoidance of punishment, or because we just like doing something for its own sake, does it really matter what the source of our motivation is?

It’s pretty much a rhetorical question isn’t it?

The simple truth is that we tend to do exceptionally well at whatever we find absorbing and engrossing; and to that end, intrinsic motivation is the ultimate in energy efficient, productivity boosting renewable fuel.

As a source of motivation, it leaves reward and punishment in the dust; and unlike our biological drives, it doesn’t have the potential to lead us astray.

We develop a deeper and more profound understanding of anything that stirs our curiosity; we commit our time and effort through thick and thin to those things that we’re passionate about. We’re not discouraged by any objective lack of success, and the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment we derive transforms such tasks from work to fun.

We want to do those things that intrinsically motivate us; we don’t feel burdened with having to do them; and because of that, we’re more engaged, more proactive and more creative…all the keys to achievement in the long run.

Back to the Monkeys

So, as Harlow’s eight cutesy rhesus monkeys proved, given the choice of scratching our backsides all day and letting out the odd belch, or doing something interesting, we’ll choose the latter.

But more than that, we won’t even want anything in return; like an unnervingly helpful neighbour with a fetish for taxidermy, we’ll give our time, attention and effort to whatever we find interesting for free.

And it gets better, because whenever we rely on that intrinsic motivation, we’ll be more productive. We’ll be absorbed in what we’re doing; and we won’t look at it as work, we’ll look at it as fun.

So where’s this all going you probably want to know.

Monkeys and Raisins

Well, let me introduce you to Harlow’s rhesus monkey experiment number two.

A couple of years later, when the profound insight that monkeys didn’t need to be bribed with bananas had finally sunk in, Harlow decided to test another hypothesis: -

If a monkey will happily solve a puzzle for nothing in return; then surely it will be even more obliging when it does get something in return. Give the monkey the ultimate sugar fix in the form of a handful of tasty raisins every time he successfully cracks a puzzle and that’s bound to up interest, productivity and efficiency right?


With the introduction of this tasty new incentive, Harlow observed that the monkey’s performance on their pre-Nintendo puzzles plummeted.

In fact, with the prospect of a reward occupying their little minds, the monkeys became about as efficient at solving the puzzle hinges as a kid with ADHD.

As the experiment dragged on they became increasingly prone to errors, took longer and longer to figure out what to do and ultimately solved fewer puzzles.

As Harlow put it in summation:

Introduction of food in the present experiment served to disrupt performance, a phenomenon not reported in the literature.

Performance anxiety

You could argue that there are several reasons why that second set of monkeys underperformed when they were given a reward.

Maybe the sugar rush provided by all those raisins pushed them into borderline hyperglycaemic shock; making them about as problem solving efficient as your average high school dropout stoned on grass.

Or maybe the cognitive wheels inside their hairy little monkey skulls perceived the reward as a payment for completing an inherently unpleasant task. Maybe therefore, the reward stripped away their intrinsic enjoyment as they came to view hinge puzzle solving as a form of monkey work…something that they just couldn’t be bothered to do.

Backside scratching, when they took a moment to reflect upon it, just seemed like more fun.

It could have been any of the above, but I have my own theory.

I think that the prospect of a reward fatally undermined their performance by transforming the task from an enjoyable, all engrossing end in itself, to a pressure inducing means to an end; one where their minds were preoccupied not with the task, but with the reward.

These monkeys were no longer focused on puzzle solving; they were simply concerned about getting their fill of raisins.

Given that mindset, it’s not much of a leap of the imagination to speculate that puzzle solving became nothing more than a pressure fuelling obstacle; one that potentially prevented them from fulfilling their real objective: – to get legally high on a few more raisins.

With their mental resources fundamentally diverted from the task at hand and with the stress of achieving a desired goal quashing their ingenuity, these monkeys didn’t have a chance.

Their puzzle solving IQs had dipped into the rhesus monkey retardation zone. The lights were on, but nobody was at home.

Raisin performance anxiety had taken its grip.

Forget About the Raisins

If the prospect of being rewarded with a few raisins can have such a deleterious effect on a monkey’s ability to perform, what sort of profoundly negative impact could a mindset focused on extrinsic rewards have on us?

After all, for most of us the stakes are a great deal higher than a few raisins; we tend to dream big and in so doing, we often find ourselves pursuing some pretty lofty, reward driven extrinsic goals.

We’re societally conditioned to do so of course; we’re chasing ribbon laced rosettes from the moment our pre-school finger painting monstrosities are judged worthy of competition.

And that’s just the start of a slippery slope that descends deeper and deeper into a lifelong reward / goal driven hell.

Qualifications, material aspirations, the perfect body, the perfect life; in fact whenever we set ourselves a goal with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we’re in essence chasing raisins just like those monkeys.

But this is not how we work…

Whilst society’s default setting may be to try to motivate through the prospect of reward; as Harlow’s rhesus monkeys show us (as do many other studies) ours is not.

Our default motivational setting is to be intrinsically motivated – to broaden our horizons, to learn new skills, to figure things out and to excel at whatever we do not for the chase of reward, but because we’re hardwired to do so.

Rewards, or the prospect of them in whatever form simply interfere with that process.

Shifting to Intrinsic

This is all a subject pretty close to my heart, because I’ve always had a problem performing when some specific outcome is dependent on my performance.

Tell me that I must do x in order to achieve y; and x will always come a distant second place to watching TV.

If I feel as if I’m working in order to earn money, learning for a specific aim, exercising in order to look good, behaving in a certain way in order to influence or impress, it all falls apart; I stop functioning.

In other words, give me a block and a hinge, promise me a few raisins, and I wouldn’t be able to figure it out either.

The simple solution I figured out several years ago, after struggling for many years with anxiety driven chronic underachievement, was to simply to let go of expectation.

I never attach the slightest external want, wish, desire or expectation to anything I do. Instead, I focus instead purely on the process – I keep my eye on the object – not on some ulterior objective, something that in any case we often have little or no control.

Exercise is a good example that most people can relate to, so I’ll go with that to illustrate.

How do most people approach exercise?

You probably know from your own personal experiences that most people start exercising with the exclusive aim of getting a handful of raisins.

They want to look good; they want to have the perfect beach body; they want to impress the single girl next door; they want to look young; they want to lose a stone, or a dress size, or a pot belly.

It’s as if they’re only prepared to put in the effort if they receive a tangible reward for their efforts.

They treat it as a case of quid pro quo.

But what happens when their ‘wants’ either don’t progress with bullet-like rapidity; or alternatively, the sexy girl next door turns around and says, “Not if you were the last bloke on earth…and I was mad…blind…and straight!”?

At best, performance anxiety sets in and clouds their judgement; at worst they simply give up.

Maybe they’ll try harder in the short-term, only to risk either injury or burnout. Maybe, like me, the sense that they’re failing to living up to their own expectations creates such stress and anxiety that the only way that they can deal with it is to abandon the pursuit in favour of the TV.

Maybe the stark realisation that they’re terminally unfanciable despite all their hard work, will force them into a life of daily subservience to pizza, Big Macs, bacon flavoured frazzles and several gallons of cola.

Whatever the consequence, that eye on the objective tends to only ever lead to one thing: – a performance crushing negative emotional state swamped by frustration, despondency and anxiety.

No Expectation

I have no pre-defined objective when it comes to exercise; I exercise every day simply because I want to.

It’s an activity that’s simply aligned with my core values – to treat my body with a degree of respect, to maintain my health to the best of my ability, to use my body in the way nature intended.

There’s no ulterior motive there – those are all intrinsically powered motives that are entirely detached from extrinsic reward.

And yet, without any form of extrinsic reward, I never miss a workout, I often push myself to the point where I’m about to hurl, and I never think to myself, ‘I don’t want to do this today’.

I harness that intrinsic motivational force; a force that is both so powerful, but yet so fragile and vulnerable to corruption by the pursuit of extrinsic reward.

Expect Improvement

If I do have a sense of expectation or a goal, it is simply this: – to improve.

Over the years I have developed an improvement mindset; one that’s not geared towards extrinsic competition or the realisation of a specific reward, but towards competition with myself.

Keeping exercise as the example, that means that yes, I want to continually get fitter, I want to feel stronger, and I’ll admit it, the little vanity monster in me wants to always look better too.

But it’s intrinsically focused and not extrinsically focused expectation; and that makes all the difference.

There are no deadlines or quantifiable set objectives; just the ceaseless intrinsic goal to improve – at whatever rate and in whatever fashion that improvement naturally occurs.

As the Olympic Gold Medallist, Sebastian Coe succinctly put it: -

Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment – whether next week, next month or next year. The improvement was the goal. The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving that goal.

That’s the perfect summation of intrinsic motivation – to just want to get better; a mindset that ironically often leads to the very same rewards – the gold medals – but achieves them as a by-product as opposed to an objective.

The simple truth is that when rewards are viewed as a by-product, they never carry the same anxiety fuelling, performance crushing connotations; which makes them all the more attainable.

Everything Else

Exercise provides the perfect illustration of both the power of intrinsic motivation and the key to achieving it - by downplaying one’s extrinsic expectations.

But the same applies to everything you do; if you can substitute an ‘eye on the object’ mindset for an ‘eye on the objective’ mindset; if you can in other words, minimise your preoccupation with extrinsic goals and rewards, you’ll perform at an exponentially higher level: – you’ll get more done and you’ll do it better.

As Teresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School puts it:

The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences, or business.

And as Harlow’s rhesus monkeys show, a focus on extrinsic reward is surprisingly counterintuitive to that process.

I’ve written a couple of posts of recent about reducing external pressures in order to more effectively harness intrinsic motivation.

Easing up on performance pressures arising from deadlines and time management strategies has been integral to my attempts to claw back my intrinsic motivation. Likewise, abandoning the pursuit of specific goals and objectives has been the other.

But as the 6th Century BC Chinese philosopher Laozi so eloquently stated, it all really boils down to one thing: -

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.

The objective isn’t important; neither is where you end up; all that matters is the present moment.

Focus on the here and now, ensure your actions are positive in the present and free yourself from the pressures and anxieties of future expectation.

By doing so you’ll harness those positive human traits we all share: – curiosity, creativity, ingenuity, the desire to contribute, to help, to do something worthwhile.

Those are the characteristics that lie at the epicentre of intrinsic motivation. Nurture and encourage them, and do your best not to stifle them with an excessive focus on rewards.

That really is the key to both performing at your best and getting the most out of life’s journey.


Factual references to Harlow’s rhesus monkey experiments are thanks to Daniel H Pink’s superb book on the science of motivation ‘Drive’; which is also the source of several of the quotes used in this post.

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth


  1. I can hardly believe that I get to read this stuff for free, Gareth. Astonishing and fascinating post to say the least.

    While I could not agree more on all accounts, I think that understanding our extrinsic motivators and our true nature as humans will go a long way toward nurturing our intrinsic ones. For instance, the burger and fries are nearly irresistible because fat and sodium were scarce commodities in our evolutionary past and those items had seed or bacteria or something that needed to be ingested by us in order to spread or grow.

    We can then laugh off tempting rewards knowing why they are so tempting in the first place, recognizing them as something other than rewards right away.

    My sinister guitar compositions are a perfect example of intrinsic motivation at work. I’ll slave away on a piece for 3-4 months that no one will ever likely hear because I in love with the process. Now, if someone were to hear one and love it and purchase it, would that disturb me? Dunno. What if I had to meet deadlines for performances and commissions?

    • Ha CJ…I think we’ve debated this guitar playing conundrum before; and I reckon we probably share the same gut instinct: – play, learn, improve, compose and discover for one’s own personal satisfaction and the creative juices flow; shift the focus to an external objective and whilst we may still be able to function; the quality of the output is much reduced.

      In fact, one interesting study involving 20 professional artists (of the canvas painting ilk) quite aptly illustrates the point. Half were given paid commissions, the other half worked on a project voluntarily. When the final pieces were scrutinized by a panel of art experts, the consensus was that whilst both the commissioned and non-commissioned works were of similar technical standard, the commissioned works fell short on creativity and originality. I’d bet you a pint the same would apply to us :-)

      Interesting point you make about the evolutionary roots of some rewards; and I’m absolutely with you on that CJ; recognition of an evolutionary impulse has to offer some relief when it comes to unscrambling the often mixed signals of what we think we want and what we really want. Like you say, the recognition that you want to stuff your face with a Big Mac, fries and Pepsi purely because we’re geared to crave fat and sugar from an evolutionary perspective; then frees us up to look at things from a more reasoned, logical stance: -

      ‘What do I really want? To submit to an instinctive urge to stuff my face until the only option for the ambulance crew is to winch me out of the bedroom window; or is there a more purposeful intrinsic drive I can employ to overcome that desire?’ One based for example on a desire for good health, for longevity and to derive all the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

  2. Gareth, you wove this one so nicely that it ended up in a perfect package I can take away with me. Wow.

    We were just talking about setting arbitrary deadlines today. How can we know when X might be done? What would make (insert date) a great day to have _____ finished as opposed to ______? I have never been good at living in the present. It is probably my biggest challenge at present, but when I read posts such as this one, I am inspired to continue to give it a go. It is, after all, the only moment we have.

    So, tomorrow I will wake and continue to ruminate and incorporate the present moment into my day. We are definitely all about working because we want to and not because we have to although we have yet to master it! If we have people like you sharing with us, we are on the right track. Thank you, Gareth!

    • Thank you Tammy, for your touching words. I think keeping an eye on the present is a state of mind we all need to be constantly reminded to do; and a little bit of inspiration to help us along the way is something we all need from time to time…me very much included.

      I think it is because I am so predisposed to projecting myself into the future with incessant thoughts of “What if?” that I’ve had to take such an proactive step in reversing my perspective from one of expectation to non-expectation. Like you say anything that attaches any form of expectation to what we do – deadlines, goals, or correlating performance and time in any way – is a sure fire way to undermine that orientation in the present.

      Of course, it’s often unrealistic to entirely abandon future goals and deadlines; we all have to march to the beat of some drum or other. But we can at least keep in mind the potentially performance sapping effects of focusing too intently on the future and as an antidote, try to reduce those extrinsic performance pressures as much as is feasibly possible: – to give just two examples, by freeing up as much time as possible to work comfortably within set deadlines and culling all but the most important tasks out of our days.

      • I do often find myself caught between What if and What now, and I love you pointing out that it’s often unrealistic but definitely worthwhile to pursue “culling all but the most important tasks out of our days.” That is what bit-by-bit we are trying to do. It is a lot of fun and certainly worth it! Thank you again, Gareth!

  3. Gareth,

    I like how you point out this simple fact: it’s complicated.

    You hit a nerve with the exercise bit. I want to take better care of myself daily, but I don’t like exercising unless I look better (pretty damn vain, huh?). I need to work on that…

    Take care!
    Tony recently posted…Are We Afraid of the Wrong Things?My Profile

    • Vanity is a trait we probably share Tony…but when it comes to exercise, I really do have to throw it out of the window.

      When I was a kid, I exercised purely to look good – I was a cosmetic athlete. I was also very easy discouraged by slow progress and often traded exercising in the gym for exercising my mouth with pizza in fits of demotivation that could last days, weeks or even months…and then I always wondered why my physique didn’t live up to my idealised self-image.

      I’ve let all that go now; I exercise purely for the joy of exercising and the sense of satisfaction I derive from doing so. And the ultimate paradox of course, is that without all that extrinsic expectation of wanting to look good, I look better than I’ve ever done before.

      Back to the gym my friend! :-)
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…Monkeys, Raisins and Intrinsic MotivationMy Profile