Why do we move and act? Why do we do what we do? Many theories of motivation have been proposed, however, the one that seems to make the most sense is “self-determination theory”. It is briefly presented here.
- Why we do what we do.
- Wanting to move.
- Stimulating movement.
- Having the desire and willingness to do something
- energy, direction, and persistence
- activation (i.e. getting started) and intention.
- mobilization toward action. (often directed toward meeting goals)
Root: motive, serving to move.
Humans are Living Organisms:
While people often ask the question “How can person ‘A’ motivate person ‘B’?”, this common question is based on incorrect assumptions about human nature. Watching a two- or three-year old child makes this immediately apparent. Preschool children are bundles of energy and curiosity. They are constantly busy exploring their surroundings, getting into mischief, and asking questions while walking, talking, and doing. They don't need external motives to keep them going; they act because they are alive, they are curious, they enjoy activity, and not much is holding them back from doing what just comes naturally to them.
The conclusion is unmistakable: people are active organisms with innate tendencies toward growth and development. We strive to master ongoing challenges and to integrate our experiences into a coherent sense of who we are. Humans are inherently proactive.
So the better question becomes: “How can a person's innate tendencies toward activity and growth be sustained?” Or, “How can we unblock a person's potential for action, expression, growth, and achievement?”
The theory is based on the somewhat unconventional premises, demonstrated through extensive research, that:
- human beings are active organisms rather than passive objects or mechanisms,
- we are naturally inclined toward growth and development rather than relying on programming by the social environment, and
- we all have a set of basic psychological needs which are universal rather than culturally determined.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation:
Humans respond to a variety of motives that range from intrinsic—originating from within—to extrinsic—responding to external controls.
Motivations exist on a scale that ranges from intrinsic at one extreme to extrinsic at the other extreme. Here are some defining characteristics of each:
- is self-motivation,
- is doing an activity for its inherent satisfactions.
- is the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise your capacity for activity and achievement, and to explore and learn.
- is the natural expression of humanity and the authentic self,
- originates from the human tendency toward learning and creativity.
- arises spontaneously when the activity itself is valued, interesting, or reflects a personal commitment.
- causes people to behave based on their interests and values; for reasons internal to their self.
- represents a principle source of enjoyment and vitality throughout life. It is the basis of flow.
- is increased by feelings of competence, optimum challenges, and authentic feedback when accompanied by a sense of autonomy,
- is increased by allowing choice, acknowledging feelings, and providing opportunities for self-direction,
- often leads to deeper understanding, richer experience, more creative results, and improved problem solving.
- is more likely to flourish in a safe and supportive (i.e. caring) environment,
- can be reduced by extrinsic rewards, threats, deadlines, directives, surveillance, pressured or demeaning evaluations, and imposed goals.
- is based on external contingencies, rewards intended to control, coercion, threats, or other forms of external pressure,
- is based on attaining some outcome separable from the activity itself,
- causes people to tolerate an activity only to receive a reward or avoid a disincentive (often including fear, shame, guilt, or humiliation),
- causes people to behave for reasons external to their self.
- is instrumental, the activity is undertaken to attain an outcome, only as a means to an end.
- can be responded to either from personal endorsement and a feeling of choice, or from reluctant compliance with external controls. The relative autonomy exercised varies greatly in these two cases.
- only influences behavior while rewards are made available. Stop the pay and stop the play.
- undermines people's intrinsic motivations under many circumstances.
Many motives are a blend, as is discussed below in the section on “integration”.
Extrinsic rewards include wealth, fame, and beauty. These emphasize what you have. Intrinsic rewards include meaningful personal relationships, contributing to the community, and personal growth. These emphasize who you are.
Support for our autonomy allows us to respond to our intrinsic motivations and authentically meet our needs for competency and relatedness. However, we are vulnerable and our darker sides are likely to emerge when these basic psychological needs are not met.
Autonomy refers to free choice and is formally defined as “internally perceived locus of causality”—basically a decision from your heart or your authentic self. Intrinsic motivation decreases as autonomy decreases. Autonomy is the opposite of being controlled.
The distinction between “I choose to do this” and “I have to do this” is the essence of autonomy.
- being self-governed.
- making your own informed decisions and choosing to act according to your own values and beliefs,
- authentic and responsible; taking responsibility for the choices you make.
- the feeling deep inside that your actions are your own choice.
- choosing to . . .
Autonomy is not:
- individualism—pursuit of self-interest
- independence—acting alone
- detached, selfish, egotistical, or irresponsible
- compliance—behaving according to external controls, or defiance—rebellion against external controls.
- irresponsible or disingenuous
- acting as a pawn
- submitting to coercion or threats
- being controlled.
- having to . . .
Competency refers to successfully meeting an optimum challenge. Intrinsic motivation increases with the feeling of competency. But a competent pawn is not intrinsically motivated. To be intrinsically motivated people need to perceive themselves as both competent and autonomous. Competent is the opposite of helpless.
Relatedness is the need to feel connected to others and to feel like you belong—you are part of something, you belong to a larger community. It is your sincere caring about others and having others sincerely care about you. It is valuing and caring about your relationships. It is the opposite of loneliness, called embeddedness—the warm, cradled, rooted, feeling of connection to others—that we all need.
Relatedness moderates autonomy, encourages symmetry, and helps to balance our first-person viewpoint. It also encourages responsibility because accepting responsibility for the well-being of others is an essential element of relatedness. Socialization is the process where autonomy and relatedness combine and lead us to choices that reflect our responsibility for the well-being of others.
Relatedness allows us to interact effectively with others. We can give and accept responsibility, cooperation, compassion, and respect. Relatedness understands reciprocity and symmetry. Community encourages relatedness.
An essential concept in combining autonomy with relatedness is recognizing where one person's rights and responsibilities end and another's begin. The autonomous person understands the extent and importance of other people's rights and responsibilities and bases mature decisions on this understanding. Trespass is avoided. Relatedness moderates autonomy because your freedom extends only to where others' freedom begins
Trouble brews when relatedness clashes with autonomy. When love and acceptance are offered contingently as a means of control the manipulated person's self image is damaged and introjected regulations are the likely result. A false or fictional self emerges in place of an authentic self. When acceptance or esteem is offered contingently then feelings of self-worth often depend on particular outcomes such as approval of others or obtaining extrinsic rewards. Having to choose between autonomy and love is like choosing between food and water. Neither alternative is satisfactory because a need is denied.
Hobbies Have it All:
It is not unusual for people who are bored, tired, careless, and otherwise unmotivated on the job to pursue hobbies with their full vigor. Perhaps this is because participating in a hobby is voluntary, and people demonstrate their skills to other caring hobbyists. Hobbies often provide an excellent opportunity to exercise autonomy, competency, and enjoy relatedness.
Integration describes bringing together and combining several elements into a coherent and consistent whole. It is creating consistency, coherence, congruence, unity, and harmony from the assembled components.
When external motivations are fully assimilated into your authentic self, they become integrated regulations. You have carefully evaluated these rules and decided they are congruent with your values and beliefs. You have exercised autonomy and choose to accept these external motivations because they are consistent with who you are. You grasp their meaning and integrate them into your other values and beliefs. You freely choose to adopt integrated regulations. They are natural and authentic.
Acquiescing to an external motivation without accepting it as your own is called an introjected regulation. These are behaviors performed to avoid guilt, humiliation, fear, or anxiety, or to attain a false pride by enhancing your image but not your stature. These are rules, beliefs, and behaviors often marked by the “shoulds” and “oughts” of fear, obligation, and guilt that often accompany fragile self-esteem. You reluctantly comply with these introjected regulations in an attempt to satisfy external controls.
Perhaps an example can help to clarify the difference between integrated and introjected regulations. Consider a person who regularly attends church (or any religious service) each week (or each day). If the person attends because they enjoy the serenity, community, teachings, warmth, aesthetics, or ceremony of the service then this represents an integrated regulation. If they attend because they seek to attain or avoid some outcome, perhaps in the afterlife, or perhaps at the church social, then this represents an introjected regulation.
People who retain and respond to introjected regulations tend to feel more anxiety about their activities, and cope less well with failures. People who reject or dismiss introjected regulations and respond only to integrated regulations show more interest and enjoyment with their activities, are more engaged, perform better, enjoy better well-being, and cope better with failures.
By adopting integrated regulations people become willing to undertake and accept responsibility for the many activities that are important but not interesting.
The space we live in is constrained by the laws of physics, our physical limitations, our integrated regulations and our introjected regulations as illustrated in this figure:
The laws of physics constrain us to walk, run, or jump rather than hover, teleport, or levitate. Our physical limitations require us to eat and sleep and they prevent us from leaping tall buildings. Integrated regulations might include our decisions to obey the law, follow selected rules of etiquette, wash the dishes, mow the lawn, brush our teeth, work out at the gym, hold a job, help a friend, return a favor, keep promises, contribute to the community, continue our education, get an annual physical, go to the dentist, refrain from abusing drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or sex, and perhaps even eat our spinach and visit the in-laws on occasion. Introjected regulations are those other rules we follow without the commitment that can only come from our authentic and autonomous choice. Perhaps we were told that we “should” do them, or maybe we do them in an attempt to gain approval from others, or perhaps they are just bad habits. These introjected regulations crowd out the living space and may leave you trapped. Identify and eject these to increase the living space available to your authentic self.
- “The man who beats his horse will soon be walking.” ~
- “To belong is to know, even in the middle of the night, that I am among friends.” ~ Peter Block
Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, by Edward L. Deci, Richard Flaste
The Self-determination theory web site, especially Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
The Handbook of Self-Determination Research, by Edward L. Deci, Richard M. Ryan
The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, by Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.
Pervasive Negative Effects of Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation: The Myth Continues, by Judy Cameron, Katherine M. Banko, and W. David Pierce. The Behavior Analyst 2001, 24, 1–44 No. 1 (Spring)
The real crisis? We stopped being wise, Barry Schwartz, TED Talk, February, 2009
The surprising science of motivation, Dan Pink, TED Talk, July 2009
The Devil Wears Prada is an amusing portrayal of extrinsic motivation in action where esteem is contingent on shoe styles.
The Hobart Shakespeareans in this documentary a fifth grade teacher demonstrates the extraordinary power of intrinsic motivation.