Is this generation spoiled by how easy is to get rewards? If so, what can we do about it?


In the wake of a world overtaken by internet technology, games and social media, there is a story we hear time and time again from parents and teachers – “my kids can’t focus on anything.”

From the inability to focus on homework, to the abrupt cycle of activity hopping and heaps of discarded hobbies and projects, these stories are everywhere. Not so often told, are stories of kids who seem to stick with things by their very nature- who still enjoy working on extended projects with little to no outside or incentive based motivation. Kids like Gavin Osak, a 23-year-old former biomedical engineering and computer science student at Duke, who is now in the top of his Harvard Medical School class- and who is using his free time to create a software program designed to help doctors make better decisions.

What inclines kids like Gavin to sustain focus on a single pursuit over months, years, and even decades? One answer, is grit. Defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals despite setbacks, failures, and competing pursuits by MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and the New York Times best-selling author of Grit: The power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth.

Duckworth argues that in the battle for long term achievements in the increasingly digital age, it is in the study and cultivation of grit, not in the harnessing of IQ or incentive based motivators that we find the most accurate predictor of success. She and her team of researchers have found that grit is the hallmark of high achievers in every domain; she’s also found scientific evidence that grit can be taught and increased.

Today’s youth inhabit a social environment unlike anything in the history of our society. Their exposure to social media and gaming culture has embedded a pattern of behavior typified by unrealistically short feedback loops-created by the bursts of dopamine garnered by achieving ‘likes’ on social media, or completing a game level. This type of short term incentive based feedback can severely undercut the development of grit and self motivation.

While the overwhelming speed and addictive nature of these new technologies are unprecedented, the study of the corrosive nature of reward based motivation on self-motivation and success are far from new. Studies dating back to the 1950s have shown the power of and potential dangers imposed by the supplantation of motivation that is intrinsic and interest based by short term reward-based models. Through these studies, we’ve known for years that grit, if only recently coined as such by Duckworth, is superior to, and in danger from, reward based incentive models for achievement. Finally, decades later, when the obvious exploitation of these psychological patterns by new forms of media have become an unavoidable truth, we see that the idea of prizing grit and self-motivation in childhood development being popularized in the mainstream.

Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook, has recently begun speaking about the intentional exploitation of dopamine triggers and incentive based motivation by new media platforms, and his analysis, like that of a growing number of experts, has not been positive.

While explaining the ways in which social media has been engineered to foster addiction, and potentially damage the human brain, he zeroed in on this issue of short-term feedback, saying, “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” He went on to explain their solution- by providing the ability to receive ‘likes’ and comments, the engineers could ensure an occasional dopamine spike in users. In order to get more dopamine, users would be forced to contribute more content.

In Parker’s own words, “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” We already know that children are far more vulnerable in this arena than the adult audience originally envisioned for these applications. In addition to the dangers this paradigm shift represents for the neurological development of children, we must start to consider the threat that the new normal presents to the creation of basic life skills and the attainment of substantial real life success over time.

Real life, does not, by and large, offer the fast feedback that young people have now been manipulated to expect and rely upon. The schooling required to attain the credentials necessary for a successful career take years to complete demanding a serious long-term investment. To get good at anything, one needs to invest countless hours of effort – as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers, it takes 10k hours to be a world class master of anything.

The question then becomes: how can this generation learn to apply the level of effort required to be truly successful in the environment they inhabit? How will they develop the grit necessary for building a life if they are being handicapped by artificial and nearly instant rewards from games and social media?

For one former Facebook executive, the answer is simple- stop engaging with these platforms. The one-time Facebook vice president of user growth Chamath Palihapitiya was candid with audiences at a recent talk, saying, “If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you,” Palihapitiya went on to advise, “If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and rein it in. It is a point in time where people need a hard break from some of these tools and the things that you rely on. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, [but] misinformation, mistruth.”

Legendary educational psychologists Adele and Allen Gottfried take a different approach. Much like Angela Duckworth, they have dedicated their careers to the study of human developmental psychology, and believe that some of the most critical finding from their decades of study center around self- motivation- a trait that Duckworth has separated from self-control in several studies, and has described as being central to grit.

In the late 1970s the Gottfrieds undertook a research project studying 130 babies born in a hospital in Fullerton, California. They continue to study the remaining participants to this day.

Much like the classic studies referenced earlier, the Gottfrieds found that interest based motivation was far superior a signifier of success than IQ or standardized test scores.

They found that kids who scored higher on measures of academic intrinsic/self motivation at a young age—those who enjoyed learning for its own sake—performed better in school, took more challenging courses, and earned more advanced degrees than their peers. They were more likely to be leaders and were more self-confident about schoolwork. Educators described them as learning more and working harder. As young adults, they continued to seek out challenges and leadership opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, the Gottfirieds also found that the modern educational climate, with its relentless push to rack up achievements earlier and faster, often works in cahoots with digital and social media to push against the development of intrinsic motivation and grit in children.

Knowing this, how can parents fight back and get their kids on track for long-term success?

The experts agree: take a great interest and care in the development of your child’s intrinsic motivation. Parents who encourage inquisitiveness, independence, and effort, and who also value learning for its own sake, produce kids with higher levels of intrinsic motivation and the grit to ensure the effects of these learned practices linger as they grow older.

They counsel us to remember that what you are instilling in your child at at a young age not only has an immediate impact but will carry a follow-up impact over time.

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