Mind the Motivation Gap: intention and action are not always equal

A study conducted at Cornell University, New York, called the Daffodil Experiment, looked at motivation: the campus was flooded with beautiful daffodils and these were offered to the students for a small fee of $1 each. They were told that the proceeds would go to a cancer research charity.

83% of students said they would buy at least one when they were interviewed. But when it came down to it, only 43% bought a daffodil, despite the price being very cheap. What this study demonstrates is that there is a gap between intention and action.

Actually having the enthusiasm and drive to do something, is what we call motivation.

Motivation can come from within (intrinsically) or from external sources (extrinsically). The good news is that when we are feeling a bit low on get-up- and-go, we can help ourselves; but first, let’s look at the difference between the two types of motivation.

Intrinsic motivation, the drive that comes from within, doesn’t require outside encouragement, rewards or deadlines to reach a goal. This type of motivation is often better and will usually get more consistent results; it is what we should all strive for because it means we do something purely for the love of it. Perhaps it’s a rare gift to love something that much - but if you do, enjoy it all you can. Maybe it’s a sport, drama or photography – whatever it is, you do it purely because you love doing it and that’s what drives you – passion.

Extrinsic motivation is needed when we don’t necessarily want to do something, but we convince ourselves to do it anyway because of the end- result (or reward). You may start working on that long essay because you are motivated to by wanting to meet the deadline (or equally you are motivated by wanting to avoid the negative consequences of not meeting the deadline).

Motivation is largely regulated by a chemical in our brains called dopamine which, like all neurotransmitters, works by carrying messages between nerve cells. It helps us strive, focus and find things interesting.

“Dopamine makes us more engaged, more capable”, according to Dr Rashmi Mullur at the UCLA Health Integrative Medicine Collaborative. “We feel like our best selves when we have enough”.

If you’re lacking motivation, try these top tips:

  1. Exercise (including yoga and meditation) is known to increase dopamine levels
  2. Diet: more omega-3 (fish is an excellent source) helps brain function
  3. Make sure you are getting enough sleep
  4. Surround yourself with right people/environment
  5. Try to pair up with someone to get tasks done
  6. Think long-term (e.g. this revision gets me good grades which eventually gets me into that university I’m so keen on)
  7. Get the worst task out of the way first; that will give you a buzz

Recommended Links:

'Holier than thou' morality study by Cornell psychologists shows why Americans aren't as nice as they think they are | Cornell Chronicle


How to increase dopamine levels and feel like your best self (msn.com)

How to boost your motivation with neuroscience - BBC Science Focus Magazine


What Is Motivation? (verywellmind.com)

Motivation | Psychology Today