Personal Productivity

Self-Determination Theory

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
tags Self-Improvement Science

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Self-Determination Theory

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 that 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 those needs naturally.

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

Francisco Sáez

Francisco is the founder and CEO of FacileThings. He is also a Software Engineer who is passionate about personal productivity and the GTD philosophy as a means to a better life.

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