In the higher education context, extrinsic motivation takes place when learning is geared by a system of rewards and punishments. Students do not try to learn because it is important for their lives and because they are passionate about what they learn. They do so because they are threatened with punishment if they do not or because they are stimulated with rewards if they do. The higher education system is “modeled on 19th century efficiency driven, assembly-line factories, which, in turn, were modeled on the early 19-century prison system that curtailed the body by disciplining the mind” (Duncurn, 2009). In this context, rewards come in different forms, usually associated with high grades. But they also include credit for the course, a diploma or degree, a summer internship, a job offer, a scholarship, honors, inclusion in the dean’s list, or any other academic prize. Punishment includes a low or failing grade in the course, academic probation, loss of fellowships, failure to secure an internship, or failure to gain a coveted job.
Nowhere is this system of rewards and punishments more tangible than in American, and to a lesser extent Canadian, law schools. It starts with a fierce admissions model which subjects candidates to take a standardized test, the LSAT, which has been criticized for not measuring what it purports to measure, for being discriminatory against minorities, and for being quite arbitrary. The admissions process leaves out hundreds and even thousands of highly capable and motivated students and subjects all candidates to excessive pressure and harmful conditions. From day one, law school students know that their gr ades, if good enough, will start them on an upward path of endless rewards or, if not good enough, will sink them into a downward spiral of career failures. First-year grades determine who will make the law review and who will get a coveted summer internship in a law firm. This, in turn, will determine who gets a job offer in a prestigious law firm after graduation. This system of rewards and punishments is exacerbated by the introduction of grading-by-the curve evaluation policies. Many law schools, particularly for first-year courses, grade students by the curve, that is, they have a predetermined, low pool of available top grades, a larger pool of mediocre grades, and another small pool of failing grades. No matter how well (or how poorly) students do, only a small percentage will get the top grades.
When the emphasis is on extrinsic factors, students do what they need to get the rewards at the minimum cost for them, that is, they will study without fully committing to deep learning. This excessive institutional emphasis on external motivating factors has resulted in an explosive psychological Molotov cocktail for law school students. Research studies conclusively show that although the majority of students enter law school with internal values and highly intrinsic motivation, before they get to their second year, their intrinsic motivation greatly diminishes or disappears completely; and students are totally disengaged in their second and third years of law school (Sheldon and Kr ieger, 2004, 2007). Additionally, their general well-being also diminishes; and law school students experience substantially higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues than students in other programs and the general population. The number and severity of mental health issues among law school stirdents are only comparable to the emotional distress experienced by psychiatric populations (Dammeyer and Nunez, 1999). These effects of external motivation persist after students have graduated and have entered the legal profession.
Scores of research studies demonstrate that when law school students are exposed to the external rewards and threats of punishment end up experiencing reactance (Sheldon and Krieger, 2007). Student reactance is a phenomenon that occurs when students develop a strong resistance to learning. Once students end then- higher education studies and are no longer coerced by grades, they will rarely try to learn academic, university-level materials for the sake of learning (Pollio and Beck, 2000). This is because human beings generally devalue those activities that they are obliged to do and overvalue those that are not allowed to do. “Learning not to learn may become the most lasting lesson of a college education” (Pollio and Beck, 2000).
In other words, if you have an intrinsic interest in something, and you receive external rewards on top of your interest, once those external rewards disappear, the internal motivation disappears, too (Pink, 2009). Suppose you like listening to country music. If I offer you S10 per country song you listen to, after a short while you will lose complete interest in these songs. This is what three psychologists from Stanford University and the University of Michigan found out in the early 1970s. In a famous research experiment, Mark Lepper, David Greene, and Richard Nisbett worked with day-care children who liked to draw. These children spontaneously chose to draw rather than play with other toys at the day care. They visibly enjoyed drawing and felt proud of the pictures they made. The psychologists randomly divided the children into three groups. They took each group to separate rooms and promised one group of childr en that they would give them a reward after they finished dr awing. The researchers did not say anything to the other two groups, which knew nothing about the offer to the first group. After the groups finished drawing, the researchers gave the first group a reward (beautiful blue ribbons with their names inscribed on them). The researchers also gave the second group a reward. This group had not expected the reward, and they were happy to receive it. The psychologists did not give anything to the third group. Again, each gr oup was not aware of the rewards or lack of rewards to the other groups. After two weeks, the first group lost interest in drawing and stopped drawing. The childr en in this group took up other interests. They played with toys, they played games, they rested, they chatted, but they did not draw anymore. The other two groups, that is to say, the group that got the unexpected reward and the group of children that got nothing, continued drawing and continued enjoying drawing as much as they had done so before the research experiment (Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett, 1973).
Similarly, in Fading Gigolo (Allen, 2014), Fioravante is a single middle age man who is successful with women. He likes having sex. And women clearly like having sex with him. Fioravante is creative in bed. He is attentive to the needs of his partners and stops at nothing to give them pleasure. Above all, Fioravante enjoys having sex. When his friend and boss, Murray decides to close down the bookstore where he works, he offers Fioravante a new job: getting laid for money. Murray gets him rich and beautiful women to have sex with and pays him more than he made in the bookstore. Soon, Fioravante loses interest in sex. He falls in love with a traditional Orthodox Jewish woman who does not want to have sex at all. Fioravante feels more comfortable in this sexless relation and abandons his male escort job, which he now perceives as an ordeal.