What motivates people? It’s a question that teachers, bosses, and parents everywhere would like answered. To address this question, Professor Hugo Kehr, Chair of Psychology at Technische Universität München in Germany, and sports psychologist Dr. Peter Gröpel investigated how unconscious objectives and willpower interact to motivate individuals. They found that people work best when external or organizational goals align with individuals’ internal goals because it requires less willpower. These findings have implications for workplace or classroom motivation.

The researchers found three components to motivation: tasks align with conscious goals, tasks match unconscious motives, and the task is relevant to an individual’s skills and abilities. People are the most motivated when all three factors harmoniously support the job at hand. With this in mind, the researchers designed a study to assess how unconscious motivation influences willpower.

To start, the participants’ drive for power (intrinsic motivation to control and influence) was evaluated using standard tests. The participants then completed two exercises. In the first, they watched a scene from the movie Dead Poets Society in which one character’s overbearing father forbids his son from pursuing an acting career. One group reenacted the scene, portraying the father. The control group wrote out the dialog. For the second task, participants watched a funny scene from the animated movie Ice Age. They were instructed not to laugh or smile.

The researchers explain that both tasks called for willpower, either to portray an unpleasant character on camera or to resist smiling and laughing. After the tasks, the researchers compared the participants’ performances and reactions to the earlier assessments. They found that the people who were more motivated by power were better able to avoid laughter in the second exercise. Kehr and Gröpel conclude that these people had more willpower left for the second task because the first task aligned with their internal motivation—being powerful. As such, they did not need as much willpower in the first task, and had more to draw upon in the second.

The findings suggest that bosses who want to motivate employees should increase internal motivation via targeted rewards, which would make it possible for employees to expend less energy slogging through less rewarding tasks. Kehr clarifies that “An individual who is motivated by power could be endowed with a team-leading position in the company. And an employee who is motivated by achievement can be best encouraged through create projects with little bureaucratic tape.”

This research is published in the Journal of Personality.

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