How Motivation and Cognitive Biases Shape Our Decision-Making Process

We’re all familiar with sports heroes who follow a routine ritual to prepare them for an event, fire-up their competitive nature, and get into the “zone.” But, we also know that motivation is very personal. What works for someone, may not work for anyone else.

The legendary Walter Payton performed weekly hill sprints for conditioning and preparation. Wade Boggs ate chicken on gameday. Michael Jordan wore his UNC shorts under his Bulls uniform throughout his playing career. Babe Ruth always touched second base when running in from right field. These were various triggers that reminded the players it was game time.

Motivation is defined as internal and external forces that influence how we act or why we behave a certain way. As a derivative of the word “motive,” it implies a desire that requires satisfaction or a reason for doing something. Top performers understand the role motivation plays in repeating successful actions and improving their effectiveness as a leader.

Motivation is what moves us to confront the challenges we face every day when those influential forces are strong. And when successful actions are repeated often enough, they become habits that no longer require motivation. Motivation drives us to succeed, provides satisfaction when challenges are overcome, and offers encouragement when we fail.

It’s important to understand these forces that persuade and ignite us into action if we are to improve our overall performance and maximize our impact in the workplace. According to recent studies, motivation is a series of transitional states “that propels the organism toward the satisfaction of a particular need.”

When referenced to learning, Loewenstein, in 1994, proposed that this “need” is an information gap that stimulates curiosity, “as a form of cognitively induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding.” In other words, curiosity creates the need to reduce or satisfy that information gap.

While some offer adjectives to describe motivation as different kinds, there are essentially two types of motivation — extrinsic and intrinsic — cited by many experts, including Chris Ceborello, author and Emergency Medical Services leader. Both types of motivation are at work in our daily life.

Extrinsic Motivation

This type of motivation comes from environmental or external stimuli, often a reward for producing a favorable action. Reward or punishment is the formula used to shape desired activities, whether for an individual or group.

The motivation is immediate, once there is an understanding of the perks for achieving the desired behavior. Extrinsic motivation is commonly used in the workplace, thinly disguised as incentives for reaching goals. These can be positive rewards, such as financial or job advancement, for achieving some valued outcome. But, rewards can also be negative for not performing, including financial loss.

Make no mistake, extrinsic motivation works, which is why many use it. But overworking this stimulus comes at a price. Studies have shown this type of motivation tends to lose its force when prolonged over time, or if overused. Individuals also stop performing the desired actions after the reward or punishment has been disbursed.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from internal stimuli. Individuals engage in an activity because they are drawn to it, or desire to close that Loewenstein information gap. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, requiring no additional external forces.

Psychologists Stefano Demonico and Richard Ryan define internal motivation as that “spontaneous tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn, even in the absence of operationally separable rewards.”

These internal forces that are driving individuals to perform are learned, dispelling the myth that leaders are born. Called the “Self Determination Theory” (SDT), the study of intrinsic motivation has determined that it’s a lifelong psychological function that is developed over time. Intrinsic motivation creates a powerful drive, as it is self-sustaining and offers a strong sense of satisfaction when the desired targets are reached.

Motivation and Decision-making

These two types of motivation, when combined, provide an insatiable drive to succeed. What you may not be aware of is that these forces also play a role in our decision-making. Motivation moves us to act but never determines the direction or defines the activities required to meet or exceed the outcome.

Hidden within motivation are cognitive biases that influence our decision-making. According to Haselton and Andrews, in the “The Evolution of Cognitive Bias,” these are systematic patterns of “deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.”

In other words, cognitive bias can keep us from making objective choices. Studies in behavioral economics have shown that:

  • 95% of our decisions are based on “mental shortcuts.”
  • Mental filters used to make decisions are a collection of stories and experiences that cloud our judgment.

There are many cognitive biases at work, some at the subconscious level, which is more difficult to identify. Keep in mind that these biases are not the same as a bad judgment made by misguided logic. Biases are rooted in processing errors in the way we think.

For example, here are some common biases we encounter every day:

  • Affinity bias is the tendency to favor people like ourselves.
  • Confirmation bias is the habit of looking for information that supports preconceived ideas and a tendency to dismiss data that doesn’t support our views.
  • Negative bias is the propensity to recall negative events rather than positive outcomes.

When left unchecked, cognitive biases influence our choices and decision-making, much to our detriment. We all need motivation, but clear, objective decision-making must follow.

Call to Action – Leverage Motivation, Strengthen Good Habits and Confront Biases

As discussed, motivation comes from two sources, extrinsic and intrinsic, the latter requiring no external stimuli. Intrinsic motivation is desirable and gained over a lifetime of learning. So, start today.

Leverage external sources to improve your performance, whether an opportunity for financial gain, meet a deadline, or complete a task left lingering as a reminder email. Take those small steps and repeat successful actions. Before long, they become good habits.

Adjust your day accordingly to foster and strengthen good habits. For example, limit reading and sending emails to 30-minute segments, four times a day – at the start and end of your day, as well as before and after lunch. Reserve the bulk of your workday to doing and completing tasks.

Confront cognitive biases that cloud your judgment. Harvard Business Review offers fresh ideas in an article entitled “Outsmart Your Biases,” suggesting:

  • Think twice before making a decision. Pause to think through options.
  • Identify potential problems with the decision you are about to make.
  • Engage outside sources for their opinions and recommendations.
  • Recycle through objectives and determine how many will be met by your decision.
  • Determine if there are alternative solutions if the decision was not a viable option.

Ability Platform offers a Leadership Learning Path that is easy to consume, consisting of 47 micro-learning video lessons that are 10-minutes or less in length, perfect for those with busy schedules. There are 13 lessons specific for improving decision-making, ready for you to get started.

Accessing the award-winning training comes down to one decision — register for a Free 7-Day Trial today, no obligations or credit cards required. Talk about extrinsic motivation! Registration takes a minute, so you’re 60 seconds away from learning how to make better decisions. Once registered, start with the Leadership Learning Path.

Remember, our mission is for you and your employees to become a top performer in your industry. We encourage your feedback, so add your responses or comments on this blog below. Experience first-hand how good learning can change your organization! Don’t just inform, transform yourself and your employees.

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