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Why We Do What We Do

Page history last edited by kayue 15 years, 3 months ago

Why We Do What We Do

By Edward Deci


People have a need for autonomy, and resent being controlled. Supporting autonomy (autonomy support) is the opposite of control.

Control can take the form of rewards as well as punishments.

Rewards can still be employed, but simply as an acknowledgement of accomplishment, rather than to control behavior.

Similarly, competition can be employed as long as you don't pressure people to win. Simply encourage them to do their best and try to finish first.

The real function of competition is to provide a challenge and in the process to have fun.

Autonomy support means taking the other person's perspective and working from their. Actively encouraging self-initiation, experimentation, and responsibility through encouragement, not pressure.

Autonomy support does not mean permissiveness. You can still set limits, but those limits should be based on reason, not fiat. For example, rather than telling children, "Keep everything neat," you can instead say, "I know that sometimes it's really fun to just slop the paint around, but please try to keep the materials and room nice for the other children who will use them."

Intrinsic motivation is its own reward (see: Flow). But it also leads to better performance and results.

Intrinsic motivation is associated with richer experience, better conceptual understanding, greater creativity, and improved problem solving (all demonstrated by controlled studies).

Extrinsic motivations can mask symptoms, but not the cause. Giving kids pizzas for reading doesn't make them want to read; it makes them willing to read to get pizza. A better approach is to find ways to help them actually enjoy reading.

Motivation requires that people see a relationship between their behavior and the desired outcome. That's why capitalism works better than communistic central planning.

There must be clarity about what behaviors are expected, and what outcomes will result from those instrumental behaviors.

People must also feel competent at the behaviors to be motivated. The desire for competence is another fundamental human need, just like the need for autonomy.

Competence without autonomy is not enough--being a competent puppet does not nourish humanness.

The feeling of competence results when a person takes on, and in his or her own view, meets optimal challenges (not too easy, not impossible).

Praising males increases their intrinsic motivation, but praising females decreases it.

Providing negative feedback: Start from the other person's perspective. Ask them what they think.


The key to living autonomously is whether or not you feel, deep within yourself, that your actions are your own choice. Whether you comply with or defy controls, you are not being autonomous because your behavior depends on the controls.

Take the 1960s. Some people were acting autonomously, trying to understand their true selves. Others were rebelling against controls, or just trying to belong. "They called for authenticity and social responsibility, but they lacked these very characteristics in their own lives."

Neither compliance nor defiance represents authenticity, and neither represents responsibility. To defy what authority says, just because authority says it, is to be irresponsible. But to comply with what authority says, just because authority says it, is also irresponsible.

We all need to internalize certain values--otherwise we would be psychopaths. There are many times when we have to do uninteresting or unpleasant things. But there are two different forms of internalization: Introjection, which simply replaces external control with an internal nagging voice, and Integration, which involves digesting the input and deciding what part of that input should be a part of the self.


To promote integration, do the following:

1) Provide a rationale for doing the uninteresting activity. (E.g. Picking up toys ensures that then won't get stepped on or broken).

2) Acknowledge that people might not want to do what they're being asked to do.

3) Minimize the pressure by making the request more like an invitation than a demand, emphasizing choice rather than control.

There will be times when being a responsible parent or manager requires sacrifice. You still need to set limits and be consistent in administering consequences. Don't let your desire to be liked interfere with your responsibility as a parent or manager.

Being truly oneself involves accepting responsibility for the well-being of others.


Ego involvement is when people's feelings of worth depend on specific outcomes. For example, a man is ego-involved in his work if his feelings of worth are dependent on amassing wealth from that work. Ego involvement undermines intrinsic motivation, and leads to more pressure, tension, and performance anxiety.

Allow yourself to fail, and you will be more likely to succeed (because you'll reduce the pressure and tension that are preventing you from succeeding).

Contingent self-esteem isn't based on a fundamental sense of self-worth, but on ho wthings turn out. High self-esteem isn't enough; high contingent self-esteem (e.g. the "I'm rich" syndrome) is more likely to be self-aggrandizement rather than a solid sense of self, and tends to be formulated in terms of being better than others, rather than simply being good and worthy.

Praise can be dangerous because it may bolster contingent self-esteem rather than true self-esteem.


Richard Ryan's research has shown that there are 6 basic life aspirations.

Three are extrinsic aspirations:

  • To be wealthy
  • To be famous (alternately, well-regarded)
  • To be physically attractive

These three are means to an end, rather than an end unto themselves. They are externally focused, depend on others, and tend to produce contingent self-esteem.

Three are instrinsic aspirations that provide their own reward, and satisfy our innate needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness:

  • Having satisfying personal relationships
  • Making contributions to the community
  • Growing as an individual (side note: this is also true for societies as a whole; when a country experiences steady growth, people are happy because this need is fulfilled. When the economy stagnates, people consider their lot in life relative to others...and are generally unhappy)

The research showed that if any of the extrinsic aspirations were high relative to the intrinsice aspirations, the individual was likely to display poorer mental health.

Desire to be wealthy => narcissism, anxiety, depression.

In contrast, intrinsic aspirations were positively associated with well-being.

Desire to contribute to the community => more vitality, higher self-esteem

Why extrinsic motivations are bad:

  • People fear that they will never be able to achieve them (you can diagnose this based on the roller-coaster of emotions one can feel)
  • Even if they think they have a good chance of achieving the extrinsic goals, mental health is poorer.

These extrinsic foals focus on what one has, rather than who one is. They are a facade.

In "The Day America Told the Truth," 25% responded that they would be willing to abandon their entire family for $10 million, 7% would be willing to kill a stranger, and 3% would be willing to up their children up for adoption.

The type of aspirations people hold is the critical predictor of well-being, not the expectations they have of achieving them. People who are healthiest focus on developing satisfying relationships, growing as individuals, and contributing to their community.

When mothers are cold and controlling, their children tend to focus on extrinsic aspirations. When mothers are warm and supportive, their children tend to focus on intrinsic aspirations.

Competence, autonomy, and relatedness are fundamental human needs that must be satisfied for people to remain health. The need for money and fame, however, are wants and desires.


Setting Autonomy-Supportive Limits

  • Have people set their own limits.
  • If you have to set a limit for someone else, avoid controlling language and acknowledge the resistance people may feel
  • Help people to understand why a limit is important (which will also give them a better understanding of the big picture, which may lead them to suggest something you hadn't thought of)
  • Make the limits as wide as possible, and allow choice within them
  • Set clear consequences that are commensurate with the transgression...and then follow through

Setting Goals and Evaluating Performance

  • Goals need to be individualized set to represent an optimal challenge
  • Approach the task from the other person's perspective (e.g. don't expect an assistant to work 85 hour weeks without executive pay)
  • Involve people in the process of setting goals
  • Evaluate performance against an explicit standard...and have peopel participate in evaluating their own performance
  • When performance falls short, view it not as a basis for criticism, but a problem to be solved. The cause may not be the person's behavior. Maybe the standard were inappropriate, or there were unexpected obstacles.

Administering Rewards and Recognition

  • Give team rewards for its most important accomplishment or biggest improvement, rather than pitting teams or individuals in competition.

Recognizing the Obstacles

  • People may need training as managers
  • Applying pressure to teachers and managers backfires--they become more controlling, and thus tend to produce worse results than before. Controlling others seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to feeling pressured.

Comments (1)

Justin said

at 6:56 pm on Dec 30, 2008

Regarding the shocking statement "Praising males increases their intrinsic motivation, but praising females decreases it.", I googled it and this seems to be the source of the claim:
There you'll see the studies are very old, that subsequent studies are getting different results after the traditional sex roles have evolved in US society.

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