When you reflect on why you’ve done the things you’ve done over the past week, what patterns do you notice?
What percentage of your activity was motivated by “shoulds” or “musts,” and what percentage by values, interests, and desires?
This may be worth considering, as studies show that an increase in self-chosen—rather than imposed—activity is associated with enhancements in self-esteem, creativity, vitality, persistence, performance and overall well-being.
I’m going to share a model from the work of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan that will help you become more aware of what’s driving your activity on a daily basis. One of their key insights is that the quality, not just quantity, of motivation matters.
What Motivates You?
Broadly speaking, motivation for a given task can be understood as one of three types:
Amotivation is the absence of motivation. In this state you’re either not doing the activity at all, or you’re just “going through the motions.”
Extrinsic motivation is motivation tied to outcome. The outcome can range from avoiding punishment (“I’m filing this paperwork so my boss doesn’t fire me”) to expressing your deepest convictions (“I’m volunteering in order to help others have more fulfilling lives”). As adults, most of the activities we’re involved with on a regular basis fall somewhere in this range, so we’ll unpack this part of the model in more detail below.
Finally, intrinsic motivation involves doing something because it is inherently rewarding. The prototypical example of intrinsic motivation is childhood play. To appreciate how the same activity can shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation as we age, consider the difference between dressing up for Halloween at age 5 versus age 25. At 5 we put on the costume because it’s fun to dress up. At 25, the fun is still there, but there are also factors like: “Do I look good in this?” “Will other people think it’s clever?” The activity has become increasingly extrinsic in its motivational focus.
Getting More Specific
Deci and Ryan recognized that not all forms of extrinsic motivation are equally “external.” Building on the model above, they describe four different types of extrinsic motivation ranging from the most externally controlled to the most self-determined.
External regulation is “carrots and sticks” motivation. When we’re engaging in an activity for externally regulated reasons, we’re concerned with getting rewards, avoiding punishment and complying with rules. To use the Halloween party example above, your behavior would be under external regulation if you wore a costume strictly to gain admission to the party or to avoid social punishment for failing to “play along.”
Introjected regulation is a lot like external regulation, except it’s internalized. Now we’re trying to appease the authority figure within our own mind. This is the realm of “shoulds” and “oughts.” When we’re acting from this place, our primary concern is with avoiding shame and guilt or gaining praise and admiration. We’re still acting on the basis of punishments and rewards, but now they are self-administered.
Unfortunately, this can become a central regulatory style for individuals experiencing social anxiety or who are otherwise shame-prone. When a socially phobic individual goes to a Halloween party, their motivational focus may center on “making sure I don’t wear a costume that is going to make me feel embarrassed.” You can see how this might stifle expressiveness and block the kinds of positive emotions that make activities like dressing up for Halloween worth doing in the first place.
With identified regulation we step over into more authentically self-authored behavior. Here we are doing something because it is consistent with a personal value we hold. In the case of the Halloween party, this could involve attending in order to support a friend who is nervous about going alone. We are motivated to attend in order to live in accordance with our personally-held value of being a “good friend.”
Finally, integrated regulation is the most internalized and self-determined form of extrinsic motivation. This occurs when a behavioral goal is completely assimilated to one’s self, and fully consistent with personal values. If a person is acting from this place, they feel like their action is an expression of who they authentically are. This is close to intrinsic motivation but not identical, as the activity is still done with an outcome in mind rather than strictly for its own sake.
In the case of the Halloween example, imagine an artist who decides to come up with a distinct costume for the Halloween party in order to create a “wow” experience for everyone attending. It becomes almost a form of performance art, consistent with the artist’s own core values of bringing wonder and emotional zest into the world.
Living More Authentically
As you move along this continuum from external control to self determination, can you feel the increase in vitality and life-engagement? For all of us who are finding life to be a little flat—but especially those of us with self-conscious and socially anxious tendencies who tend to reside down at the “controlled” end of the continuum—it is worth becoming mindful of our motivation and looking for ways to increase authentic, self-determined engagement with life. I specialize in helping people find ways to live more authentically; if you’d like to begin working on this, contact me today to set up on initial appointment.