Self-Determination Theory

by Francisco Saez

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Pursuit of Mastery.

December 31, 2012

Many theories about human motivation—especially those used to motivate employees at work—focus on one basic idea: People tend to respond to positive and negative reinforcements (rewards and punishments) and tend to analyze what interests them in a rational, objective way.

However, it seems that this style of traditional motivation is becoming increasingly obsolete. In the 1970s, Edward L. Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester conducted a series of experiments and concluded that, while it is possible that some rewards can boost motivation when it comes to performing repetitive and boring tasks, when these tasks require some creative thinking, rewards not only do not help but they can even be harmful.


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December 31, 2012

Many theories about human motivation—especially those used to motivate employees at work—focus on one basic idea: People tend to respond to positive and negative reinforcements (rewards and punishments) and tend to analyze what interests them in a rational, objective way.

However, it seems that this style of traditional motivation is becoming increasingly obsolete. In the 1970s, Edward L. Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester conducted a series of experiments and concluded that, while it is possible that some rewards can boost motivation when it comes to performing repetitive and boring tasks, when these tasks require some creative thinking, rewards not only do not help but they can even be harmful.

Surprisingly, in most of those experiments, the groups of people that did not receive any external reward outperformed those who were rewarded. When intrinsic motivation is replaced by a reward, creativity can be crushed. Moreover, in these situations, rewards may encourage people to try cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.

Many years after the experiments, Deci and Richard M. Ryan developed what is called the Self-determination Theory (SDT). This theory is based on the idea that all human beings have three innate psychological needs (not learned), and when these needs are satisfied, we are motivated, productive, and happy:

  • Competence: We seek to control what we do and experience the mastery of our skills.
  • Autonomy: We seek to direct our own life.
  • Relatedness: We seek to interact, stay connected, and care for others.

Accordingly, to motivate people to do their best, rather than trying to directly motivate them, we should create the appropriate environment for them to meet these needs naturally.

I’d like to conclude these thoughts by leaving you with a link to an interesting talk given by Deci himself on the importance of autonomous motivation. Enjoy!

Watch: Promoting Motivation, Health, and Excellence

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