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Where there’s a will there’s a way: Enhancing motivation

by Hannah Maslen, Julian Savulescu and Carin Hunt

A study examining pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement found that participants’ subjective enjoyment of various memory and problem-solving tasks was significantly greater when they had taken modafinil (a drug originally developed for narcolepsy) compared with placebo, but that mood ratings overall were not affected (Muller at al 2013). The authors of the paper therefore concluded that, in addition to the various performance effects, ‘an important finding of this study is that there was a striking increase in task motivation’. Whilst a lot of attention has been paid to the ethical implications of enhancing cognitive performance, much less has been paid to the striking task-motivation finding. We suggest, however, that motivation enhancement might be the more contentious effect, from an ethical point of view.

There has been much discussion about whether the use of biomedical enhancements constitutes cheating, or otherwise undermines the value of achievements facilitated by such enhancement. If you use a memory enhancer to learn more French vocab or use steroids to bulk up your muscles then, it is sometimes argued, you should be praised less for your linguistic fluency or heavy lifting – things have been made ‘too easy’. However, merely enhancing capacities in this way does nothing to guarantee that you will ace the language test or win the weight-lifting competition. If you took an enhancer and sat in front of the TV, your linguistic proficiency or sporting prowess would remain unaltered, or perhaps even diminished. Even if you took a memory enhancer and spent the time expertly completing soduku puzzles, this alone would not generate results on your language test.

When achievement of a particular goal necessarily requires training, there is no doing without that training. It is your spending time and effort studying lists of vocab or lifting weights that does the bulk of the work to produce results in the respective cognitive and physical domains. Exerting effort is usually necessary for achievement, whilst enhanced capacities are generally not. In colloquial terms: where there’s a will, there’s usually a way.

This then raises a question: given that sustained effort in pursuit of a goal is the best guarantee of attaining that goal, is the enhancement of motivation perhaps the most problematic form of enhancement? If there’s often a way to achieve a goal where there’s enough will – i.e. if motivation is often necessary and sufficient to secure the physical or cognitive achievement – then would a pill for will not diminish the value of achievement more than ‘capacity’ enhancements diminish value?

There are at least two way we might understand motivation and, correspondingly, at least two ways in which it could be enhanced. The first we might call intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the psychological mechanism (and accompanying phenomenological experience) of finding a particular activity inherently rewarding, thus conferring on the agent a propensity to pursue it. The more you are intrinsically motivated to study or to work out, the less psychologically burdensome it is. You are motivated because you enjoy it. Alternatively, there is also a plausible sense in which an agent could be said to be motivated when he is particularly successful at self-regulation in relation to pursuit of his goal. The experience of being determined enough to sustain effort despite the task not being enjoyable characterizes this second conception of having the will to achieve a goal.

This suggests two possible ways in which motivation could be enhanced: either intrinsic motivation could be increased – i.e. pursuing the goal could be made less psychologically aversive and even rewarding – or self-regulation could be improved – i.e. it could be made easier to persist in pursuing the goal despite its being psychologically aversive.

It is already possible to enhance intrinsic motivation. As noted above, Modafinil has been shown to increase intrinsic motivation in situations where we otherwise might falter from striving towards our goal. Muller et al. (2013) found that Modafinil resulted in a striking increase in task motivation. This same effect has been suggested by Young and Geyer (2010) in a study that found that the behavioural effects of Modafinil may be due to dopamine transporter (DAT) inhibition.

By increasing agents’ task-enjoyment in these cases, the subjective effort that they exert is reduced. We suggest that the advantage procured by reducing the subjective effort or psychological burden involved in persisting with cognitive or physical training may be substantially more beneficial than increasing one’s (latent) capacity to perform well, but leaving the aversiveness of training intact. Unless one is motivated to spend time pursuing one’s goal, even the greatest biomedical enhancement of memory or muscle potential will only improve the prospects one has were one motivated to exercise one’s capacities. Success is entirely contingent on the exercise of the capacities. But, given even average baseline capacities, enhancement of will propels an agent a long way to achieving his goal.

Perhaps, then, the most controversial human enhancement is not radical cognitive or physical enhancement. What is most controversial is the enhancement of the will and self-discipline. To have a will of iron is, in today’s world, an enormous advantage given the power technology affords. Indeed, as a point of comparison, radical cognitive enhancements are already available. Modern computing and the Internet already give us unprecedented computational power and the capacity to access human knowledge.

However, two things determine how that power is used. Firstly, our motivation: not being bothered to use the computer or the internet saps it of any power it might have. To succeed requires effort and technology merely magnifies the effect of effort, as steroids do to training. The second factor that determines how this power is used is our goals, which are determined by our values. For this reason, motivational enhancement, perhaps even more so than cognitive enhancement, requires accompanying moral enhancement.



Muller U, Rowe JB, Rittman T, Lewis C, Robbins TW, Sahakian BJ. Effects of modafinil on non-verbal cognition, task enjoyment and creative thinking in healthy volunteers. Neuropharmacology. 2013;64:490–5

Young JW, Geyer MA (2010) Action of Modafinil—Increased Motivation Via the Dopamine Transporter Inhibition and D1 Receptors? Biological Psychiatry 67: 784–787

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Would you consider modern societies dependence on caffeine an effort to increase “self-regulation”?

    If you do, What are the moral implications? I’m thinking how caffeine has made our society more work focused. In addition, as individuals live in a constant coffee buzz, there is a degradation of calm and peace values.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post. As a psychologist with a background in self-regulation and motivation, I have to admit that I find the conclusions drawn from the findings in the Müller et al – study unfounded. There is a fundamental difference between task motivation and task enjoyment; the former is what drives behaviour, the latter is the result of the behaviour. This distinction, encapsulated in the contrast between wanting and liking, can be seen most extremely in drug addicts, who really want a certain drug but surprisingly don’t enjoy taking the drug that much. The straight forward prediction from this framework is that task enjoyment might merely reflect how well you did on a task, the better you did, the more you enjoyed it. Modafinil increased task performance and task enjoyment – participant in the drug condition did better and hence, I would argue, enjoyed the task more. Furthermore, modafinil did not affect performance in the creativity task, and this is also were they did not find significant effects on task enjoyment; when participants did not do better, they didn’t enjoy it. In order to study task motivation, one has to measure it before the performance of the task, not thereafter. (There are also several lines of research that argue that task enjoyment undermines intrinsic motivation and is actually detrimental to skill acquisition).

    This being said, I think it is uncontroversial to state that methylphenidate increase self-regulation (i.e., the will). So, there are definitely drugs that increase will-power, and the flaws of this study probably don’t affect your arguments in general…

  3. It is argued above that motivation might be enhanced in two ways Firstly intrinsic motivation might be increased and secondly self-regulation might be improved. I agree that this is an important distinction to make. Personally I believe this distinction might be expressed as enhancing effectiveness and enhancing motivation. Leonard Kass has argued that if we obtain certain goods without any real determination that in so doing we devalue determination in general. If he is correct then perhaps enhancing effectiveness might undermine someone’s determination. However with basic motivation, intrinsic motivation, enhancing motivation would not appear to devalue our motivation or change our authenticity. Enhancing motivation cannot damage motivation With respect to authenticity I assume someone’s authenticity is determined, at least in part, by what we ‘care about’, take pride or are motivated by. I have discussed these differences in response to Hannah’s previous posting ‘Marathon mice, enhancement and the will to work out’ in a posting in wooler.scottus.

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