Editor’s Note: This is the first in a 5-part series on motivation and its intriguing, often beguiling qualities.
The other day, a close friend asked me why I carve implements out of wood. What drives me to do such a thing, he queried. Well, there is that notorious fame that carvers of wood tend to acquire. Then there’s the wealth that suddenly arrives at the carver’s doorstep. I hope you know I’m kidding.
Yet in all seriousness, what is it that drives us? What motivates us to do things or to avoid doing them? Obviously, most of us are driven to survive, which compels us to hydrate, eat, and seek warmth. And we often hear about the evolutionary reasons we behave the way we do, like why men tip more at restaurants (to attract females), why women wear makeup (to attract males). Aside from recent challenges to such Darwinian reductionism, natural selection theories strike me as tired. Also, it seems all too convenient to cherry pick natural history and apply ancient adaptive behavior to modern social realities.
Another angle in which motivation’s been studied is in this more recent idea of “grit” or “perseverance”; something psychologist Angela Duckworth has popularized and placed squarely in the context of educational achievement. But what predicts this “grit?” It’s nice to know that those who try hard, even in response to failure, have a greater chance of succeeding in academics and therefore, capitalism. Yet what is it about these grit-imbued overachievers that drives them to their gritty heights? Like nearly any behavior, I suspect it’s part biology (heredity), and part arrangement of social environment (e.g., do teachers, parents, peers, etc. support the little one’s perseverance?).
Enter Self-Determination Theory! According to this established theory, our motivation depends largely on how much we endorse doing something. That is, how much we say, “yup, that’s exactly what I wanted to do just now.” The psychologists who developed Self Determination Theory call this internalization. When we haven’t internalized a behavior (i.e., it isn’t consistent with our sense of who we are), we are “externally regulated” — that is, we’re allowing something outside, external to ourselves to control our behavior. This happens when we do something for reward or to avoid punishment, as when we go to work each day for the sole purpose of receiving a paycheck, or hastily clean our room to avoid mom’s nagging. The opposite of being externally regulated is being “intrinsically motivated” — that is, we do something because it’s fun and enjoyable. That’s it. I’m intrinsically motivated to hang out with my close friends, or to walk around my neighborhood to witness the oak, sycamore, tulip, and maple trees preparing for winter. Why? Because I enjoy it!
In between external regulation and intrinsic motivation, are:
- introjected motivation – doing things out of guilt or a sense of social obligation. Like getting your co-worker a birthday present. (“you know, I’d feel guilty if I didn’t get Tom something for his birthday.”)
- identified motivation – doing things because they’re consistent with our identity and values. Like recycling (for most of us, anyway).
- integrated motivation – doing things because they’re central to who we are and who we want to be. For me, such things include gardening, carving wood, crocheting, etc.
What the research on motivation concludes pretty definitively is that the more we do things for their own sake or because they’re consistent with who we are, the healthier, happier, and better adjusted we’ll be.
Knowing this, what should we make of paid work? What of high-stakes testing? What of all the work-related, political, and social “obligations” we impose upon ourselves? I encourage you to consider other activities you carry out on a routine basis and how much you honestly endorse them.
When you’re through with all that deliberation, join me over the next month (if you’re intrinsically motivated to do so, that is) for a series of four more salacious installments on the stuff of motivation. Next week: our psychological need for autonomy.Follow SethLaJ307