MOTIVATION: Extrinsic VS. Intrinsic

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Typical adolescents are motivated by external and internal factors, such as, inner longings, dreams, goals, parents, peers, and rewards. This writing dives into what motivates adolescents and compares the typical adolescent with the character Alex P. Keaton, made famous by Michael J. Fox, on the sitcom Family Ties.

Submitted: August 14, 2009

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Submitted: August 14, 2009



Achievement typifies motivation, responsibility, and adaptability, internal and extrinsic, in the accomplishment of goals, needs, and desires; ideological and material. Adolescents would agree that achievement should and could not be quantified and it is an area, a concept that is subjective. If, for adolescents, it is their motivation/desire not to excel in sports, academics, and chores, then it is indeed an achievement, an accomplishment on their part of not succeeding by displaying no motivation or interest. If it an area or activity that brings them fulfillment, for example, debating, sleeping, or football, then again it is an achievement that is wholly dictated by their own needs or sense of responsibility, and not external influences. Further, adolescents motivations intrinsically include self-determination, curiosity, challenges, and effort expended towards activities the adolescent is interested in; extrinsically, motivations to complete a task/activity preclude to rewards for the accomplishment of goals or achievement, or punishment for not acing a test, setting low standards, or not achieving/exceeding parental expectations.
In an episode titled Big Brother is Watching, Episode 6, Season 1, of the TV comedy, Family Ties, Alex P. Keaton a seventeen year old student, the character made famous by Michael J. Fox, does not play to type of the typical adolescent. He is an over achiever, motivated, focused, curious, and impatient, whereas his younger sister Mallory is viewed as an under achiever, lacking in motivation and discipline. The disparity between the two siblings is typical of adolescent development and extends to intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.
Alex at the beginning of the episode is focused in his determination to become the editor of his high school’s news paper, the Harding Horah. The election process is polarized in his favor since he is the only candidate running. Mallory, on the other hand, nonchalantly questions family members of ‘good books’ they have read due to the fact that she has to complete a book report soon. Mallory does not want to only know what books were read by the members of her family, but she wants them to recount to her the entire stories so she does not have to read the books herself. Alex, in the mean while, is challenging the counting process of the election and expressing his views and opinions from every aspect of expected responsibilities as an editor to the capability of the vote counters to accurately and quickly record the votes. He won with approximately 23 marked votes in his favor and 17 ballots indicating ‘voting not for Alex.’ Alex’s effort towards gaining the editor position, unlike Mallory in working on her book report, was motivated by strong internal principles and standards. Mallory’s intent was to complete the book report quickly and by doing the least possible amount of work. Alex was of a mindset that he could make a difference in how the Paper could report the news to students and only he, Alex P. Keaton, could rise to the challenge and accomplish that goal. Today, most adolescents seem to be extrinsically motivated, like Mallory, whose perceived level of skill in most areas, especially academics is low, and thus feel anxiety, and therefore does not rise to the challenge to perform. Mallory feels satisfaction and achievement in assuming the persona/role of ‘a shopper'; this brings her immense satisfaction and joy. Mallory’s parents finally told her in no uncertain terms that she had to read a book or the consequences/punishment would not be to her liking.
As the demands on adolescents intensify to perform academically and socially, students such as Mallory question their perceived skill level and motivation to rise to the challenge. In an effort to ace an Algebra test, Mallory felt the need to cheat, and secretly bought the test answers from another student. Mallory knew she could have gotten a ‘C’, but thought an ‘A’ would improve her standing, when compared to her brother, with family members and teachers. As an accomplished student and now editor, Alex is happy with his endeavors and feels enjoyment, satisfaction, and passion in the flow of his achievements. Alex now editor of a ‘good little paper‘ wants to publish cutting edge stories and not like last year’s feature about new swimsuits for the swim team. He overheard a rumor of students cheating on a math test and became overzealous in his enthusiasm to write about this serious matter that was against everything he believes in ‘how unimaginable.’ Alex was warned by another student staff member of the repercussions of publishing such a story mentioning student names. Alex went ahead anyway and publish the article citing a ‘journalist need to reveal the truth.’ The consequences were immediately felt both in school and on the home front. Alex was fired from the school Paper and Mallory emotionally vented to him of him not understanding her at all; and his parents questioned his motivations for not thinking through to other options. Alex could not understand why he was fired, because in his mind it was a good and relevant story the administration was trying to cover up. Mallory when approached by her parents tearfully told them she was fed up of always being compared to Alex, both at home and by her teachers, thus the dishonesty.
The demands placed today on adolescents to perform and excel, socially, academically, and physically, subject them to undue stress. Alex, unlike Mallory, experienced no academic pressures to perform and therefore was not forced to adapt to different roles outside of who he was to conform. Mallory’s persona was one of superficiality which extended to wearing the right clothes and being seen in the right places. Mallory was forced to adapt to a role not by choice but due to the fact she perceived herself as not being smart like Alex, therefore she gravitated to something else she perceived was opposite of what she wanted to do and be. Mallory was not motivated and therefore did not take any responsibility for her learning, but just doing enough work to get by. Adolescents such as Alex and Mallory were motivated to learn or not to learn in different ways. Alex’s parents wonder at their son’s academic ease and social verbosity without undue need for parental involvement. Mallory needed guidance to become more intrinsically motivated and to challenge her self. It is important for parents and teachers to foster, support, and guide adolescents towards becoming intrinsically motivated. The seeds to this endeavor is planted ‘when students are given choices, become absorb in challenges that match their skills, and receive rewards that have informational value but are not used for control’, thus adolescents who are confident and self-motivated.

Santrock, J. W. (2008).Adolescence.12th Edition. (pp 255).New York. McGraw-Hill

Big Brother is Watching. (1982)Family Ties.Episode 6, Season 1.

Retrieved from Netflix:April 15, 2009

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