I watched in amazement as Grace, a friend’s granddaughter, who was petrified of going near the sea a year before, walked fearlessly into tumbling waves. She is now in love with the ocean and has adopted her grandmother’s passion for the sea.
This is the third article inspired by the IPPA World Congress. Other articles so far include Jeffrey Siegel on awe and elevation at the movies and Kathryn Britton on Barbara Fredrickson’s definition of love. There’s more to come.
Edward Deci could have used Grace as a powerful example of internalizing extrinsic motivation in his keynote talk at the IPPA World Congress titled Self-Determination Theory and Its Relation to Positive Psychology.
Self-Determination Theory and Autonomous Motivation
Deci began by differentiating Self-Determination Theory (SDT) from many other cognitive theories because it’s a meta theory based on the assumption that humans, by our very nature, are proactive, work to master our environment, and have a tendency toward growth. In contrast, other cognitive theories are mechanistic and maintain that humans are basically passive. Deci explains that “nutriments” of competence, autonomy, and relatedness are necessary for growth to occur. Only when these nutriments are in place do people function effectively.Self-determination theory is a motivational theory at heart. Motivation doesn’t just differ in amount, it also differs in kind. With autonomous motivation, people fully endorse what they’re doing. They choose to do it. Autonomous motivation is often (but not always) intrinsic motivation, being drawn by the activity itself. He noted that autonomous motivation creates outcomes of greater persistence, better performance, better physical and mental health, and better personal relationships.
Additionally Deci acknowledged that extrinsic motivation (doing something for a separate reason than the activity) while not initially autonomous, can be internalized and become a fully autonomous motivational force. Offering individuals the nutriments of competence, autonomy, and relatedness, thereby creating a climate that supports their individual needs, allows them to examine extrinsic motivation without pressure and then to decide how it fits. At this point they may adopt the extrinsic motivation as their own and internalize it.
Basic Needs in Action
So what does this have to do with Grace? Grace had been afraid of the ocean and wouldn’t go within 20 feet of it. Though it was a passion for her grandmother, Grace would not share that passion.Grace’s parents could have tried positive conditional regard, only giving love and attention when Grace did what they desired and moved toward the ocean. Deci notes that this leads to a feeling of being controlled, and is thus not autonomy supportive.
They also could have tried negative conditional regard by withholding love and attention when Grace wouldn’t go into the ocean. Deci comments that this leads to resentment and uncontrolled emotion. It is also not supportive of autonomy.
Instead they allowed Grace to get better at swimming in a wave pool (supporting competence). They gave her the choice as to the lessons (supporting autonomy) and connected her with friends who were swimming (supporting relatedness). Now Grace has internalized her parents’ and grandmother’s love of the ocean. She runs into it rather than away from it.
Though I’m not a parent, the development of autonomous motivation and its effect on Grace was obvious. More important, after Edward Deci’s keynote at the IPPA conference, it is easier to see the connection of Self-Determination Theory and positive psychology both at work and in our personal life, particularly in the area of achievement.
Self-Determination Theory Web site. The publications page has PDF files or links to hundreds of articles, including applications of SDT theory in environmental sustainability, education, health care, organizations and work, psychotherapy, sports and exercise, and videogames.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.
Deci, E. L., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2004). Self-determination theory and basic need satisfaction: Understanding human development in positive psychology. Ricerche di Psichologia, 27, 17-34.
Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. eds. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Perspectives in Social Psychology). New York: Plenum Press.
Deci, E.L. & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.