Edward Deci’s work on motivation is so often quoted (Dan Pink's Drive comes to mind) that we decided to go back to the primary text by Deci himself, a book called Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.
The author is probably best known for his thoughts on the role of autonomy in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Deci co-developed the Self-Determination Theory with Richard Ryan.
Deci and Ryan believed that people naturally develop through a process of engagement and interaction with the world and that said interaction tends to be driven by a “movement toward greater consistency and harmony within.”
The urge to develop an integrated sense of self is thus a central feature of who we are as individuals, and the activity — both physical and mental — that is necessary for this natural developmental trajectory is intrinsically motivated.
This intrinsic motivation is both driven by three innate psychological needs:
- The need for autonomy
- The need to feel competent
- The need for relatedness
In Deci's view, when the needs are being fulfilled, we will have plenty of motivation. When there are obstacles between us and these needs, it will be demotivating.
In our day to day lives, we will interact with the environment and we will integrate what we feel and learn from these interactions into our sense of self. Think of this like a continuous feedback loop. This environment is littered with societal influences, which can be motivating or demotivating, depending on how they interact with our innate needs and sense of self.
Deci uses an example of a young “artistic athlete.” This individual, who has talent both in an athletic arena and with artistic expression, will ultimately be tugged at times towards being an artist or athlete. To feel authentic to themselves, they will need to find a way to express themselves in both of these realms. If they don’t then they won’t be able to feel that sense of harmony; the self they are reflecting to the world won’t be consistent with the self they feel within.
Ideally, both aspects of this individual need to be nurtured, which Deci calls “autonomy support” — supporting the development of a whole, integrated person.
To characterize our perspective more formally, we view human behavior and experience in terms of the dialectic between the person and the environment – the interaction (and potential opposition) between the active organism striving for unity and autonomy and the social context that can be either nurturing of or antagonistic toward the person’s organismic tendencies. Synthesis occurs when there is enough support in the social context so that the natural, proactive tendencies are able to flourish. But in the absence of adequate supports, not only will intrinsic motivation be undermined, but so too will the development of a more integrated or coherent sense of self.
Deci and Ryan discovered that there are specific social contexts that can undermine this integration.
First, those social contexts that are excessively inconsistent and chaotic. These situations make it next to impossible for people to know what is expected of them: They can’t understand how to behave as there is no consistent feedback, which tends to leave people with little to no motivation (they can’t tell if they are being effective and will feel less a part of the group/situation – no competence, no relatedness).
Second, those social contexts which are extremely controlling. These environments pressure people into certain types of behavior and removes autonomy. The people who comply with the demands tend to become almost robotic at times. Whether the individual is complying with or actively defying the controls, they are not acting autonomously.
Autonomy is the key; without it, Deci believes people will lose their motivation and worse, it will hinder their development.
To develop in a natural and healthy way people need to perceive that they are in a “psychological state of feeling free.” People tend to know when they are being controlled, even if they can’t name it, they feel it. We can’t even trick ourselves, sometimes we think we truly want something but we are actually doing it out of a sense of obligation or fear.
Some people believe that our need for autonomy and our need for others is inherently contradictory. Not so, says Deci:
People have often portrayed the needs for autonomy and relatedness as being implicitly contradictory. You have to give up your autonomy, they say, to be related to others. But that is simply a misportrayal of the human being. Part of the confusion stems from equating autonomy and independence, which are in fact very different concepts.
Independence means to do for yourself, to not rely on others for personal nourishment and emotional support. Autonomy, in contrast, means to act freely, with a sense of volition and choice.
Internalizing & Autonomy
So how do we nurture those around us to help them become the best, authentic version of themselves? Deci and Ryan talk about this in terms of helping people to internalize values/regulations.
They believe there are two distinct types of internalization: Introjection and Integration. Introjection is akin to swallowing a rule whole without thought, whereas integration is more like chewing and digesting a rule. This the optimal form of internalization.
The behavioral output of introjection—swallowing a rule whole—are things like rigid compliance, halfhearted adherence and sometimes even defiance.
Introjected values and regulations can thus result in a variety of outcomes, but none of these is optimal. Clearly the half-heartedness and the rebellion are good for neither party. And while the rigid compliance may please the socializing agents who prompted it, there are serious costs to be borne by the people who comply.
This introjection manifests mostly in a lack of vitality and enthusiasm. It’s hard to be motivated when you are focused on pleasing others instead of being authentic to yourself.
So how can we focus on helping people integrate the regulations and values that will help them to develop to their full potential?
If you put a rooted avocado pit in a pot of earth it will probably grow into a tree, because it is in the nature of avocados to do that. It happens naturally. But not all pits become trees; some shrivel and decompose. They fail to thrive because the climate is inadequate, or the necessary nutrients are lacking. They need sun; they need water; and they need the right temperatures. Those elements do not make trees grow, but they are the nutriments that the developing avocados need, that are necessary in order for the avocados to do what they do naturally.
The metaphor is simple but poignant. Too often we ask the avocado pit to grow into an apple tree. You can try to nudge that avocado into becoming something else but it will never happen, and you will both be miserable.
It all comes down to autonomy support, according to Deci:
It is particularly interesting that autonomy support, which was a crucial contextual nutriment for individuals’ maintaining intrinsic motivation and as a result being more creative, processing information more deeply, and enjoying their activities more, also turns out to be essential for promoting internalization and integration of the motivation for uninteresting, though important, activities.
At one level of analysis, autonomy support means to relate to others – our children, students, and employees – as human beings, as active agents who are worthy of support, rather than as objects to be manipulated for our own gratification. That means taking their perspective and seeing the world from their point of view as we relate to them. Of course, autonomy support may require more work, but then, as socializing agents, that is our responsibility. For us to expect responsibility from others, we must accept our own responsibility as the agents of their socialization.
Autonomy support is not the same as being overly permissive. Having no limits or regulations will create inconsistent and chaotic environments that are no better to generating feelings of autonomy and full development.
Permissiveness is easy, but autonomy support is hard work. It requires being clear, being consistent, setting limits in an understanding, empathic way.
People will continue to make mistakes; that's human nature (and it’s often a byproduct of trying hard things). Reacting with either heavy-handedness or permissive indifference does not help. Setting the environment for growth and trying to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view is the best course of action.
We all have the need for autonomy, to feel competent, and to relate to others. If you want to learn more about motivation in yourself and others pick up Why We Do What We Do, it’s well worth the read. The other influential book on motivation in recent years is Daniel Pink's Drive.