Daf Yomi at Beren: When Extrinsic Motivation Turns Intrinsic

By: Shayna Herszage Managing Editor  |  February 14, 2021

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

Psychologists categorize motivations into two groups: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation describes one who is motivated due to possible factors such as a desire for praise, payment, or a good grade one may receive as a result of fulfilling an action. Meanwhile, intrinsic motivation describes one doing an action not for a reward, but because the individual finds satisfaction or pleasure in the action itself.

The dichotomy of the two categories of motivation is addressed in Masekhet (Tractate) Pesakhim in daf (page) 50b:

“Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if he does so not for their own sake, as through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.”

According to this statement, a person should always strive to perform mitzvot (commandments) and learn Torah — even if they are not motivated by solely the mitzvah or Torah learning itself. Rav believes that, in performing these actions for other reasons, a person may come to want to do them for their own sake. Thus, Rav argues that a person’s motivations to learn Torah and perform mitzvot may change; the motivations may start out extrinsic — for the sake of a grade, for example — and then turn intrinsic, out of love for Jewish values and Jewish texts.

Many Yeshiva University students have supported Rav’s above statement in their own lifestyles. In some situations — such as in Judaic classes — Torah learning occurs out of a desire to graduate with good grades. However, the learning seldom remains within the confines of class. Whether there is class or not, chavrutot (learning in partners) continue to happen — not for a grade, not for payment, and seldom for social clout, but out of an increasing passion toward learning Judaic texts.

Additionally, the same intrinsic motivation is found among the Yeshiva University community with regard to doing mitzvot. Many students grew up with mandatory prayer services in their schools, forming an extrinsic motivation toward prayer. Without a teacher marking off attendance on a checklist in the mornings, one may wonder how the synagogues of Washington Heights (the area which houses the Wilf Campus) and Midtown (the area which houses the Beren Campus) have groups of college students present each week. The answer is perfectly aligned with Rav’s statement: what started out as an extrinsic obligation to attend prayer services has transitioned into an intrinsic motivation to engage in the mitzvah of prayer.

For several months last year, communal prayer services were closed worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, not only was there a lack of overt extrinsic motivation, but there was even a lack of community. A person could stop praying altogether and no one else would notice. However, while some people lapsed in their prayers, others remained diligent — from home instead of within a congregation. 

Last week, I went to the Friday night prayer service in Schenk synagogue on the Wilf Campus. As per COVID-19 protocol, all congregants were required to have signed up prior to the Sabbath and, before entering, the congregants’ temperatures were checked. The temperature-checking process caused the flow of congregants to turn into a long line of people waiting to enter and engage in prayer services. As I waited in the back of the line, at the very end of the block, I felt a sense of awe and pride. There is no clear extrinsic motivation to attend Friday night services: we must wear masks, we must walk in the cold winter air, and there is no more post-services schmoozing (socializing) or possibility of a potato kugel. Rather, this is an exhibition of extrinsic motivation that has turned into intrinsic motivation to do a mitzvah over time.

Rav’s statement shows the possibility for growth and fluidity in motivation. We, as people, are constantly growing and changing. What begins as an extrinsically motivated task may become an intrinsically motivated part of a person’s life and values, whether or not that change is conscious. In the face of the motivational shift, we may be surprised to find that our values are often stronger than we think.