An incentive may be defined as an external reward or stimulus. An incentive has the capacity to motivate us to think, behave and act in a specific way. This incentive can be something tangible like money, or intangible, like a good feeling. An incentive doesn't guarantee that a person will become motivated, only that it has the potential to motivate. As discussed previously, motivation means different things to different people. This means an incentive that could motivate one person may not necessarily motivate another. This is due to the fact that we all think differently and believe in different things. This results in the value of incentives varying between individuals.
Earlier in this series we established that many motivational theories consist of both biological motivators (nature) and environmental motivators (nurture). When considering incentive theory we begin to see a shift away from biological influences and a movement towards the environment and its influence on behaviour.
While instinct theory and drive theory draw almost exclusively from biological motivators, incentive theory is the opposite in that it draws on environmental motivators. Incentive theory is based on the idea that a positive external stimulus attracts or pulls a person in a certain direction. This is the opposite of both instinct and drive theory, where a negative internal state, e.g. hunger, pushes you in a certain direction.
For example, you don’t go to the gym because you’re biologically programmed to work out. You go because there is something external that’s rewarding to you. There’s an incentive, which, in this case, could be a number of things. You may wish to attain a better looking body or reach a target weight or to be positively perceived by others. Alternatively, this incentive may be something you want to avoid, such as getting dropped from the team, or throwing out clothes due to weight gain, or avoiding ridicule from friends and family. Regardless of whether you wish to attain or avoid something, the incentive motivating you is something external and not internal. Put another way the motivation an incentive provides is extrinsic rather than intrinsic.
Ideally any incentive will be awarded after the completion of an action or behaviour, with the intent being to increase the likelihood of the action or behaviour occurring again. By repetitively using rewards, a conditioned response is developed which, in turn, generates a positive association. When this process happens regularly and consistently, it contributes to the formation of a habit. It is thought that if the incentive is received immediately after the completion of a learned behaviour, the effect is greater.
You may have heard of Pavlov’s dogs, the famous experiment where a dog’s salivary flow was measured when placed in front of a bowl in which meat powder could be delivered automatically. Researchers would turn on a light in front of the dog, then, after a few seconds, meat powder was delivered to the bowl and the light was then turned off. This was repeated several times. The experiment was then completed again, but this time with no meat powder being delivered after the light was switched on. It was found that even in the absence of meat powder, the dogs still salivated as the response had become conditioned. This is a classic example of incentive theory in action.
Another point to consider, when discussing incentive theory, is the differentiation between WANTING and LIKING. Simply liking the idea of an incentive may not be enough to motivate you into action, as it is thought to be too passive. Wanting, on the other hand, adds an urgency and sense of action that is more likely to attract or move you towards the incentive. This provides some good insight when considering how it could apply to those wanting to exercise more.
The major drawback of incentive theory is that it draws from external motivators, as opposed to internal. As we know, external or extrinsic motivation can be a powerful motivator initially but, over time, it tends to lose its potency. In the case of incentive theory, an external motivator is used to reward an action or behaviour with the ultimate outcome being to achieve a goal. The danger is that it often becomes easy to focus on the reward itself instead of the actual goal. This can often lead to a blurring of what you were actually trying to achieve in the first place.
How might incentive theory relate to exercise motivation and change?
Incentive theory is very relevant when it comes to exercise motivation and change. External motivators, although not often effective long term, can be very powerful when beginning a course of action. While the ultimate goal is to become intrinsically motivated, extrinsic motivation can provide us with an initial boost and kick start the progress. The key is to not become dependent on the incentive, but instead use it to buffer or kick start your change. Incentives should be used initially with the aim being to shift thinking from “I SHOULD be exercising” to “I WANT to exercise”. Look at the sequence below to get an understanding of how this might happen:
Moving from I SHOULD exercise to I WANT to exercise:
Getting back to the point made earlier about wanting and liking, you will recall merely liking the incentive or reward is too passive a position to take. You need to really want it! Wanting something will create a sense of urgency and movement and serve to drive you towards the action or behaviour that leads to the incentive.
So how do you know what we really want? How do you ensure that the incentive you’re using as a reward is something you really want, and not just something you like or think would be good? Luckily you don’t have to think about this too seriously. The idea with incentive theory is to use an external motivator to kick-start us into action on your journey to becoming intrinsically motivated. What this means is that the incentive you choose to use can be something fleeting, as long as you really want it at the time. For example, you may reward yourself by choosing to go to the movies, or to go out for dinner, or to buy new shoes.
Either way it must be something that you really want at that particular time. If the incentive loses its appeal then it must be replaced with something else you want. As you will know from experience, the object of our desires can be fickle. This must be acknowledged and assessed regularly to ensure the incentive maintains its potency and effectiveness, and remains a valid reward.
Take a moment to consider how incentive theory is relevant to the things you have done in the past or the things you are doing currently.
Coming in part 5 - Cognitive dissonance theory