What motivates us? Fear and punishment? Or money, fame, and power?
One train of thought, called self-determination theory, starts from the idea that all humans have the natural—or intrinsic—tendency to behave in effective and healthful ways.
Central to self-determination theory, or SDT, is the distinction between two types of motivation—autonomous motivation (sometimes also called intrinsic motivation) and controlled motivation.
“Autonomous motivation has to do with engaging in an activity with a full sense of willingness and volition,” explains psychologist Edward Deci of the University of Rochester. “Whereas controlled motivation means doing something with the experience of pressure and obligation.”
“The whole field of motivation has changed over the last 40 years, from thinking about how you can control people from the outside to thinking how you can really facilitate and support people’s commitment and engagement in activities,” says Richard Ryan, a clinical psychologist and professor of clinical and social sciences in psychology.
Self-determination theory’s three components
The evidence-based theory holds that all humans have a basic need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In a nutshell: Research by the pair (and inspired by them) suggests that we need to feel that we can succeed at a task and that we are making progress towards that success—what they call competence. Meaningful options as we work toward that competence constitute our autonomy. Lastly, we need to feel that our efforts are recognized by others and that we are part of something beyond ourselves—what Ryan and Deci have termed interpersonal relatedness.
What’s the enduring pull of the theory for today’s researchers? “I think there’s a lot of control in the world,” says Deci. “There are a lot of people who are trying to push others around—in organizations, in politics, in homes. And a lot of people are paying attention to this other point of view [SDT] because they don’t like the control they find in so many aspects of their lives.”
SDT is more than a theoretical construct. Deci and Ryan, along with independent scientists around the globe, have found many real-life applications for SDT in areas ranging from parenting, to workplace organization, to health care, wellness, sports, education, and virtual worlds.
“One of the things that we see in high-quality motivation, no matter the domain, is that people are passionate about what they are doing and they really value it,” explains Ryan. Regardless of whether SDT is applied to employees, patients, students, athletes, or one’s own children, Ryan says, it’s important that people engage whole-heartedly in what they are doing. “It’s that high quality motivation that comes from the inside.”
The two SDT pioneers have studied practical ways in which parents, managers, coaches, and teachers can help or hinder motivation in others in ways that will either improve the person’s effectiveness, engagement, and sense of well-being, or have the opposite effect.
“We want people as agentic as possible,” says Ryan. Add to that the necessary ingredient of autonomy—one of the key points on which SDT pivots and which the duo believes to be a fundamental and universal psychological need— and you’ll have the basic recipe for motivation.
Giving people a good reason to do what they are doing, why it’s valuable or useful, is key to helping the individual take ownership and be excited about what they are doing. “Unfortunately, so often when people try to motivate others they take responsibility rather than helping the person find responsibility themselves,” Ryan describes a frequent pitfall.
How they made their case
When, as young scientists in the late 1970s, Deci and Ryan first began to question the behaviorist school of motivation, sizable skepticism, sometimes even outright condescension, greeted their theory.
“Yes, it was met by a lot of critiques,” Ryan acknowledges. “But I think a lot of the tension in the field was about these anomalies [such as curiosity and exploration] that behaviorism just couldn’t explain.”
For several decades beginning in the 1950s, the behaviorists dominated the study of motivation to the near exclusion of any other theory, with their research focused on how the provision of rewards affects and conditions human behavior. But Ryan and Deci doubted the veracity of the theory. They found the opposite to be true: that rewards such as prizes and money were not only less effective than behavioral psychologists had hitherto believed, but also, under some circumstances, could actually diminish people’s engagement and motivation.
Ryan and Deci’s first book, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Springer US, 1985) repudiated the dominant theory. Realizing they were on thin ice, both agreed early on to stick to things they could empirically substantiate. “No speculating,” Ryan sums up their early-career rule. “Show, don’t tell” became their professional mantra.
In 1969, the young Deci, in search of a PhD thesis and fascinated by what drives motivation, used Soma puzzle cubes, a then popular Parker Brothers game, for a study on the effectiveness of rewards. He found that when money is used as an external reward for a specific activity, the test subjects ultimately lose their intrinsic interest.
At the time, the conclusion was highly controversial, but Deci was off and running. A short time later, he was joined by Ryan, a clinical psychologist who shared these sensibilities about the importance of autonomy in motivation.
Later, conflicts arose with cross-cultural theorists, particularly those who argued against universal truths in human motivation, recalls Ryan. He and Deci, along with many other researchers, responded to the critique by testing SDT across many cultural contexts. The results of those studies upheld the core principles of their theory.
But controversy is par for the course, they both agree. “I have to say that it’s been fun,” adds Deci. “I mean having controversies, and dialogues, and debates. It’s an aspect of how you proceed with scientific psychology.”
Ryan notes that in recent years, neuropsychology has opened up an entirely new window into studying (and substantiating) SDT.
“All types of motivation are reflected in the brain. When people are highly intrinsically motivated there’s a lot of activation in their dopaminergic system, which really means the brain systems that are associated with pleasure and rewards.”
When people have their basic psychological needs satisfied and difficult decisions to make, they have more access to the areas of the brain where self-knowledge is located, which is needed for effective decision making, Ryan explains. The new neuropsychological evidence, visible through magnetic resonance imaging, helps psychologists fine tune some of their thinking, making it a “beautiful interface because both can inform each other.”
Does he ever feel vindicated by what MRIs can now show about their theory?
“If there’s any sense of ‘I told you so’—well, there’s always gratification when things turn out to be right,” Ryan smiles. “But I guess we’re pretty much always focused on the things we still have to do and the refinements that still have to be made.”