A learner’s strongest motivator is their identity

There’s been quite a bit of debate at work recently around gamification in learning. Specifically, is it good or bad, and should we be using it in some way to motivate learners to engage with our resources? This is in the context of some initial forays into the gamified-informal-learning space and we are yet to see results, mainly because we’re still at the early stages into the experiment.

The discussion is yet to reach a conclusion, but in a meeting this week my thoughts started to coalesce around the idea of identity which may have far-reaching consequences for how I approach my work in future.

There has already been convincing research into the power of social proof in motivation. ‘Brain Science for Dummies’ says something like, we have evolved as a species with powerful instincts. to form groups. Strength in numbers was the only way to survive vicious attacks from wild-beasts. And the upshot of this is that we tend to think and do what other people in our group are thinking and doing. Of course the flip side of this natural tendency is that there are both in-groups and out-groups. Most who’ve experienced the crushing depression of playground politics know all to well, the way people tend to exclude others based on differences or preferences. Quite quickly, “who you are”, and subsequently “how others see you” becomes clear. We are then slotted into nice little boxes by society, and as we grow older the boxes become more complex until eventually we lose our identity as old aged pensioners.

Identity is a group experience
Identity is a group experience

There also seems to be the general acceptance nowadays that people are not machines, but story-tellers. We all construct our own life’s narrative, justifying and excusing our behaviour. Who we are is more important than what we do, and we gather a collection of memories to explain our identity to others and to ourselves.

I contend that identity is at the forefront of most of our decisions. “What would Charlie do?” Is the question being asked in my sub-conscious whenever a choice emerges. What Charlie does is based on a myriad stories that covers many layers of Charlie’s personality – Charlie is sociable because of this story, Charlie is a rugby player because of this story, Charlie is a family-man because of this story. The collection of stories creates a life narrative and the life narrative is my identity.

Ask yourself
Ask yourself

But what’s the application of this insight? Well, coming back to the discussion about gamification, it seems to me that to create a perception of value in the context of gaming mechanics like badges, they need to be linked to the learner’s identify.

“I am an engineer”, one learner might say, now the question follows, does an engineer want badges? Or alternatively, do engineers want a particular badge and why? Another example might be found in Enterprise Social Media community management. A group setup for a particular department can only be successful if the members identify or want to identify with that department. And a group founded to foster conversation around change management can develop purely because people want to be identified as “change management professionals” – whatever that means. We broadcast our identity to others in a number of ways through online profiles, what events we attend, the way we dress, even how we speak.

The solution to the ‘Puzzle of Motivation‘ is to find out how learners see themselves, and then create experiences that reinforce their internal narratives. Advertising has done this for years using celebrity endorsements. Men wanting an identity like that of Roger Federer, a humble, successful, rich, champion-athlete might conceivably buy a razor that Mr. Federer is suggested to be using. Apple used the identity factor quite overtly in their “I am a PC”, “I am a Mac” adverts. People will wait in line for hours for their next product to prove to themselves and to the world that they are hip, tech-savvy and progressive.

Again in learning we can see how certificates (what I would call “serious badges”) can play a role in creating an identity. Our LinkedIn profiles are covered in certificates and peer endorsements which builds quite a strong picture of someone’s personal brand, and therefore, their identity in the professional world.

Corporate business talks about engagement without really understanding what it means. For me, engagement is about building a collective identity among employees so they will defend the company to the very last. Easy if you’re Apple, hard if you’re BP.

Learning and development professionals need to start thinking beyond just the organisation and curation of content for information download, and instead look at the deepest levels of people’s motivation. Identity for me is at the core: a collection of stories we tell about ourselves and which guide us on a path to who we want to be. In turn identity tells us what we want to learn, how we want to learn it and who we are likely to listen to.

A learner’s strongest motivator is their identity, it isn’t whether or not they get paid more as Dan Pink demonstrates, or whether they’re given a badge or gold star for completing a course. So my conclusion to the gamification debate is that in using gaming mechanics, be aware that the real work is done by linking it to a learner’s identify, and speaking to your audience, is the only way to find out what it means to be them.


  1. We tell stories about ourselves. Others have a story about us. The extent to which these match is coherence; dissonance creates stress. Feedback pushes coherence one way, badges & cartificates another. I think you’re right that this is an important mechanism to understand. Nice post.

    • Aren’t badges and certificates a form of feedback that you can use to prove your self-image?

      I’ve never been more upset than when someone challenged my self-image. I like the point you make here.

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