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Feeling unmotivated? Use “Skinner’s Law” to get yourself back on track

Big Think recently spoke with behavioral scientist and author Katy Milkman about what really motivates us and steers our behavior.
A sculpture depicts a human head with the top open like a birdcage. A lone white feather, symbolizing lost motivation, lies on the ground outside the cage on a blue background.
Credit: Jorm Sangsorn / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • In the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham built his philosophy on the idea that humans are motivated by pain and pleasure, and this idea is supported by many social sciences today.
  • A concept called “Skinner’s Law,” named after the American behaviorist B. F. Skinner, suggests that we can manipulate our motivation by making the pain of not doing a task greater than the pain of doing it — or making the pleasure of doing it greater than the pleasure of not doing it.
  • “Commitment devices,” such as setting up rewards or punishments for completing or not completing a task, can help us self-motivate and increase our chances of success.

In 1780, hunched over a table at his home in London, Jeremy Bentham wrote the first lines of the first chapter of one of his most famous works. It read, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters: pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”

The British philosopher built an entire philosophy around this idea — that we are all motivated by pleasure and pain. Lucky for him, then, that almost all of the social sciences today agree with him. We are a hedonistic, happiness-seeking species who fear the pain-inflicting monsters of the world. Under all the pretense and bravado, we can be reduced to the simple push-and-pull mechanisms of the carrot and stick. After we get over the humbling and demoralizing simplicity of this, we can learn a few valuable lessons. We can game our own mechanisms and manipulate our Benthamite sovereigns. We can do anything. It’s all to do with something the writer George Mack called “Skinner’s Law.”

To help us make sense of this cheat code for human motivation, Big Think spoke with behavioral scientist Katy Milkman, the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

Commitment devices

According to Mack, Skinner’s Law is that when you are procrastinating or finding a task hard to get on with, you have two choices: either “make the pain of not doing it greater than the pain of doing it” or “make the pleasure of doing it greater than the pleasure of not doing it.” Since we know that we are only motivated by two things, we can use our higher, rational faculties to work that fact to our advantage. Skinner’s Law is named after B. F. Skinner, the American behaviorist who developed the idea of operant conditioning with his experiments on rats and pigeons. Skinner’s main argument was that human beings can, just as rats can, be conditioned to behave a certain way when given the correct pain-pleasure incentives.

The trick, then, is to set yourself pleasure rewards or pain punishments for doing (or not doing) a certain task. Essentially, there are two ways to motivate yourself: intrinsically or extrinsically. Intrinsic motivation is when you want to do something out of some inherent drive or desire. You might just want to eat pizza. Extrinsic motivation, though, is when you do something for some further benefit or reward (or to avoid a punishment). So, I don’t eat my pizza because I want to be trim for my beach holiday. The genius behind Skinner’s Law is that it turns our most powerful intrinsic motivator (pleasure) into an extrinsic reward.

Milkman told Big Think that these kinds of techniques are called commitment devices in the behavioral psychology literature. “It’s a tool for a person to self-motivate,” Milkman said. “It’s something where you opt in to creating an extrinsic reward system.” She described a study involving smokers trying to quit. There are two groups, each given the same “standard smoking cessation products,” but one group is also told “they will lose the money if they fail a nicotine urine test in six months. What they found was that it increases quit rates by about 30%.”

The strongest master

We know, then, that if we want to succeed in any task, we need to set compelling commitment devices to keep us on track or to raise the stakes. The next question is: How can we make the best kind of commitment device? Is it better to promise yourself pleasure or to threaten yourself with pain?

It turns out that pain is by far the stronger motivator. As Milkman told Big Think, “So [Daniel] Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize for a theory called ‘Prospect Theory’. He and Amos [Tversky] showed that we find pain more motivating than equivalent pleasure. For example, if you lose $20, you’re more upset, and then if you find $20, you are happy. The pain outweighs the pleasure.”

Using all of this and Milkman’s advice, here are three practical bits of advice:

Make a wager: Find a friend or a family member, and bet them some sum of money or some item you value that you will do a certain thing. “Okay, Dad,” you might say, “if I’m not 5 pounds lighter by my birthday, you can have my PlayStation 5.” Ideally, place the “wager” in some kind of intermediary location so you can’t back out of the deal if you lose. Commitment devices only work if you can’t slip out of them.

Social accountability: Tell everyone you’re trying to do something. Tell them your target and your deadline. Keep people updated about your progress. This serves two purposes: to present the carrot and the stick. The carrot is that you get praise, support, and advice from your closest relatives. The stick is that you might be embarrassed or ashamed if you fail.

Avoid boredom: It’s easy to assume that boredom is some middle, neutral state somewhere between pleasure and pain—it’s just absence. But not according to Milkman. As she put it, “There is research to show a fundamental dislike of boredom. It causes us pain to be bored. In 2016, one study showed that when presented with a long, monotonous, and tedious film fragment, people would rather shock themselves than be bored. So, as a general rule, try to keep yourself busy. The devil makes work for idle hands; bored people do silly things.


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