What Motivates Us? Self Determination Theory

29 May 2019

Deci and Ryan (Deci & Ryan, 2008) identified humans as innately desiring to be autonomous beings, calling upon our will to quench our needs as we interrelate with our social, emotional and physical environments.  We tend to peruse those activities we find enjoyable with our levels of creativity and productivity at their greatest when we are intrinsically motivated. 

As we journey through life, as we and our adolescent students are, we are inevitably faced with extrinsic pressures to complete activities that are not inherently interesting. Such activities tend over time to subvert intrinsic motivation (Cook & Artino, 2016). Intrinsic motivation then is stimulated or subverted by favourable or unfavourable conditions. According to Self Determination Theory, (Deci & Ryan, 2008; Ryan, Wang, & Liu, 2016) intrinsic motivation is fostered by three psychological needs:

i.    Autonomy – a sense of control

ii.    Competence – our self-efficacy regarding a task or subject

iii.    Relatedness – our affiliation with others

Autonomy is promoted by providing individuals with opportunities for choice. These choices can be as simple as deciding when and where to study, which subjects to choose when options are available and whether to work individually or collaboratively. Autonomy does not imply removing expectations nor a total choice over all circumstances. Autonomy is further encouraged through avoiding judgment and encouraging personal responsibility and is undermined through the traditional ‘carrot and stick’ reward and punishment theories of the behaviourists, by false deadlines and through controlling actions of those in authority.

Competence is supported by optimal challenge and constructive feedback that promotes self-efficacy and avoids negativity. The sort of challenge that places us just outside of our comfort zone in our stretch zone but not so far as our panic zone which, conversely, undermines our self-efficacy.

Relatedness, whether introverts or extroverts, is essential for our motivation. Humans thrive in social and emotional environments that feature mutual respect, a sense of caring and a feeling of safety.  

One of the significant challenges we face as teachers and parents when looking to help our students’ motivation is to avoid the ‘if … then …’ approach of rewards and punishments and replace that with the ‘now that …’ approach of recognition. This is worth some explanation in another article, but in brief the contention is that, while rewards diminish intrinsic motivation as control of these is not within the grasp of the individual, unexpected recognition for ‘a job well done’ does not impact negatively.

Cook, D. A., & Artino, A. R. (2016). Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theories. Medical Education, 50(10), 997-1014. doi:10.1111/medu.13074

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-Determination Theory: A Macrotheory of Human Motivation, Development, and Health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182-185. doi:10.1037/a0012801

Ryan, R. M., Wang, J. C. K., & Liu, W. C. (2016). Building Autonomous Learners : Perspectives From Research and Practice Using Self-Determination Theory. Singapore: Springer.