Carrots or sticks? How policies stack up to the evidence on motivating behaviour change

This comment was originally a guest blog for The Power to Persuade, published 3 September 2014.  You can see it in its original format here.

The current government’s reform agenda has been analysed from many angles.  In this article Susan Maury, Social Policy Researcher from Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, suggests using the lens of motivational psychology to design effective responses to complex social problems. Policies such as ‘work for the dole’ have not proven nearly as effective as holistic support such as Youth Connections, which had 94% of participants still engaged in employment or education six months after completing the program. There is a wealth of evidence about what motivates people to change their behaviour that does not seem to be part of the current policy debate.


A great deal of public policy is designed to motivate people to do something.  Since the release of the Federal Government’s Budget earlier this year, it is clear that what constitutes effective motivation is hotly contested, and ideologically aligned.  For example, the government says its proposed welfare reforms are needed to galvanize unemployed individuals to look for work.  Public debate has focussed on some hotly contested proposals, including the introduction of a 6-month waiting period before young people can access income support; the requirement for unemployed people to apply for 40 jobs monthly; and the proposed Work for the Dole scheme.

Assistant Employment Minister Luke Hartsuyker is quoted as saying, “The Coalition is committed to making sure that job seekers in receipt of income support meet their mutual obligation requirements to actively look for work.’’  On the other hand, ACOSS has criticised the budget’s reform measures as “one-sided and harsh;” CEO Cassandra Goldie’s comments include this statement: “Simply increasing job search requirements and increasing punishments without added investment will make it tougher for people looking for work.”

Who is correct?  What are the ideal policies to assist unemployed people in finding work?  While there has been much commentary on both sides, missing from the argument has been evidence from psychology.  Organisational psychology in particular has been doggedly persistent in examining what people find motivating, and a large body of evidence has built up over time.  It may be helpful to drop the ideological lens and look at the issue from this perspective.  I am providing an overview only, but the amount of research that has built up over time is quite consistent in its findings.

Proposed policy changes reflect a belief in the efficacy of what researchers call controlled motivation.  This is motivation that is imposed externally on an individual and mediated by external rewards and punishments, exerting pressure on them to think, feel or behave in a certain way; it is coercive in nature.  Controlled motivation used to be common practice in work environments (consider the norms during the industrial revolution), and has been found to result in rigid functioning, reduced wellbeing, and a lack of vitality (download a short review here).  While controlled motivation may lead to some behaviour change, the cost to psychosocial health is very high, and returns are often both low and short-term.

More effective is what is termed autonomous motivation; this is self-directed motivation in which the individual has internalised and values the desired outcome.  Autonomous motivation can be further parsed into intrinsic motivation, in which the individual engages in an activity because it is psychologically rewarding, and pro-social motivation, in which there is a sense that the behaviour is contributing to the good of others, while at the same time is reinforced and supported by a social network.  Autonomous motivation leads to increased psychological health, improved cognitive performance, and persistence – all inputs which create a ‘virtuous cycle’ of increased motivation.

Autonomous motivation is underpinned by three conditions:  Individuals have a sense of competency (that is, they feel capable of achieving the task); individuals have a sense of autonomy (they are able to self-direct their time and energy); individuals have a sense of community, or relatedness (they have a sense of contributing to a social network through their efforts, and being meaningfully supported by others).  All three conditions need to be present.  In fact, these three aspects are so closely aligned with motivation, goal attainment and psychological wellbeing that they are considered by some to be basic human needs.  (Read more here and here.)

What does this mean when formulating public policy?  If we are aware that controlled or coerced motivation is both less effective and highly damaging to individuals, it sounds like common sense to develop policy that will encourage autonomous motivation instead.   Policy should therefore include methods for increasing a sense of competency – through training and practical supports, for example (TAFE programs can play a vital role here).  Individuals should be given autonomy to map a reasonable plan based on their individual needs and requirements.  And finally, individuals should be provided with a nurturing and supportive network; this may include work places that are welcoming (for example, to single mothers, individuals with disability, or those who experience mental illness), an accountability support group to talk through difficulties and challenges, or a mentor who can assist with job-search skills.  It would be an interesting – and I would argue useful – exercise to examine a range of policies using this lens.

It is often the case in public policy debates that individuals are classified as a problem.  This can lead to dehumanising policies that create alienation and – as we have seen – lack of motivation. Policies that are built on the premise that human beings are psychologically and socially complex carry with them a level of respect and empowerment.  There is no simple answer to these issues, but a little understanding can help us get closer to effective responses.

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