studying student in library

Studying How to Get People to Study

Ross E. O'Hara

Editor’s Note:  Yes, I know I’m lucky.  Education was always a priority in my family. Going to college was a given. Grad school became the same. Since I was the youngest of three, I never questioned it. It was just what you do. I never asked “Why?” or “What’s in it for me?”  I just did it.

I don’t want to stay on this therapist couch too long – though it is comfy – so I’ll just say that I know my experience was not the norm, I was privileged, it is ridiculous. 

But – especially given the evolving nature of our economy and culture, a greater understanding of success, happiness and meaning, the rising cost of education and my two or so kids – what does motivate people to attend and finish college? And how might that apply to the rest of our personal, professional and organizational lives?


Motivation is a tricky business. A longstanding school of thought argues that people do things for rewards: pay me, feed me, badge me, do something to make me happy. Give me a tangible incentive! But we’re more complex than lever-pressing rats, and we underestimate how motivated we are by more uniquely human needs, like social acceptance and a sense of purpose.

The business world is catching on. Charlotte Blank, chief behavioral officer at Maritz, discussed the benefits of employees understanding the value of their work. She writes, “Creating a sense of meaning and purpose in the workplace is a wise investment … Contrast this with the meta-analytic findings that pay and job satisfaction are only marginally correlated.” Purpose is important for motivating customers, too. Jeff Kreisler (Author’s note: Always hat tip your editor [Editor’s note: True]) wrote this summer about how we’re more likely to refer someone to a service, like a bank or food delivery, if the incentives for doing so go to our friends rather than to ourselves. While we may get “paid” in reputation points, it’s not so simple to reconcile that pro-social impulse with our common understanding of how incentives should work.

We underestimate how motivated we are by more uniquely human needs, like social acceptance and a sense of purpose.

Incentives and Purpose in Higher Education

As a behavioral researcher working within higher education, I witness the importance of purpose every single day. Going to college is a complex, multi-faceted decision that can come at great personal and financial cost, making the meaning behind that decision especially critical. Yet today’s conversation around college too often focuses on the professional and financial gains conferred by a degree. College graduates have greater job stability, are more likely to receive benefits such as health insurance and retirement contributions, and earn an average of $1 million more over their lifetimes compared to people without a degree. Those are mighty strong incentives to go to college, yet the majority of people who start college never finish.

One reason why we see massive attrition in college is that these extrinsic rewards may not be the keys to academic success that we imagine them to be. The three sets of studies discussed below show how we often highlight the “wrong” reasons to go to college and how this motivational mismatch can be detrimental to students’ success. Moreover, our value of traditional incentives, like career earnings and fringe benefits, may carry less weight with those who have historically been left out of higher education.

Extrinsic rewards may not be the keys to academic success that we imagine them to be.

Putting the Focus on Others

Promoting the wrong motives can be cognitively disruptive. Research led by Dr. Nicole Stephens of Northwestern University has shown that independent goals, like earning money, can be counterproductive for students whose parents didn’t attend college. Instead, these “first-generation” students are more compelled by interdependent motives, such as being a role model to others and giving back to their community.

Promoting the wrong motives can be cognitively disruptive.

In a pair of experiments, first-generation students who read a welcome letter (ostensibly) from their university’s president about how college would make them more independent performed worse on a cognitive puzzle than first-generation students who read about how college would make them more interdependent. In both experiments, students whose parents graduated from college were not impacted. Despite first-generation students’ tendency to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds, the idea that a degree would be beneficial to others seems far more motivating than the promise of a lucrative career.


Working Together

A fit between motives can change a person’s whole educational trajectory. Careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are the backbone of American innovation, but progress is held back by STEM industries’ inability to recruit and retain talented women. STEM education, as well, has been long criticized as a “leaky pipeline” that loses women at every juncture. Although women earn nearly 60% of all bachelor’s degrees, they earn only 35% of all STEM degrees, and only 22% wind up in a STEM career. Dr. Amanda Diekman of Indiana University has argued that these “leaks” are caused, in part, by a mismatch between women’s career motives and commonly held misconceptions about careers in STEM.

A fit between motives can change a person’s whole educational trajectory.

Several studies have shown that both men and women perceive STEM careers as isolated and having little practical value – “science for science’s sake.” While both notions are inaccurate, they still deter students from pursuing STEM. These stereotypes, however, are generally more repellant to women than they are to men, thereby creating a gender gap in students’ interest in STEM.

When college students read examples of how a STEM career involves collaboration with other people and focuses on solving real-world problems, however, women are just as interested in STEM as are men, if not even more so.


Thinking Transcendentally

Motives that transcend self-interest can be very powerful. Whether you’re in school or working for a paycheck, a lot of your day can be taken up by boring, tedious tasks. But seeing how that tedium benefits other people may keep you plugging away at it better than can financial rewards.

A study led by the University of Texas’s Dr. David Yeager used various techniques to get college students to think about how learning can help them change the world for the better – that is, a self-transcendent purpose. Next, these students were given time to either sharpen their math skills via tedious computations or to do fun things like watch viral videos and play Tetris. Students thinking about self-transcendence were much better at sticking with the boring math problems than students primed to think about other topics.


Things to Consider

The lessons from these higher education studies say a lot about underappreciated ways to motivate people. A few key takeaways:

  1. We are all a mix of motives: independent and interdependent, esoteric and practical, selfish and self-transcendent. And the relative weights of these motives ebb and flow over time and context. Too often we try to motivate people only with personal gains and tangible incentives, at the expense of connecting each other with a larger purpose.


  2. The personal motives to which we default may derive from traditional identities of power: male, white, middle-to-upper class and educated individuals. It is imperative to consider the background of who needs motivating and how best to connect to their values.


  3. We might think that a message that fails to resonate with someone will simply dissipate or be ignored completely, but a motivational mismatch comes at a cost. Framing an activity around motives that do not appeal to someone may implicitly drive them away.
Moving beyond traditional incentives can be effective in influencing behavior.

No matter who we want to motivate – students, employees, customers, volunteers, children, voters – moving beyond traditional incentives can be effective in influencing their behavior. Consider how your audience wants to connect with the larger community and help those around them. Unless that audience is a dog … then just stick to treats and belly rubs. (Editor’s note: And then he becomes a good dog, a very good dog, yes he does. Yes he does.)

Ross E. O'Hara


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