Self Determination Theory

Self Determination Theory Goes Beyond Operant Conditioning

I took a course on Coursera regarding motivation, more specifically Self Determination Theory. I was quite amazed to discover that SDT goes beyond Skinner’s Operant Conditioning. I was a fan of operant conditioning for years until I started this course. 

Let’s start with the beginning: operant conditioning has been designed using rats in boxes and applying to them rewards and punishments to increase or decrease certain behaviours. Skinner proved that he can greatly influence the behaviour or rats in boxes adding or removing pleasant or unpleasant stimuli. The problem with applying operant conditioning with people is that people have choices. To keep a long story short if a person does not like the box we are creating with operant conditioning the person will just leave the box. People can’t be placed in boxes, unlike rats. 

The course introduces the concept of volitional behavior: to do things willingly. Volitional behavior has two ideas:

1. Intrinsic motivation – doing things out of interest and enjoyment

2. Internalization: doing things out of value, and you understand the worth of action.

Next the SDT course discusses the idea that any human in any culture has three psychological needs:

1. Competence – the need to do a great job

2. Relatedness – the need to feel connected with other people

3. Autonomy – the need for people to act willingly and endorse their own actions.

When these needs are met a phenomenon arises called intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the desired outcome in any situation as it implies the person performs a specific task voluntarily. 

Further on this course suggests that most types of rewards decrease intrinsic motivation except praise. There are all sorts of studies discussed. For example offering someone money as a reward for performing a task theoretically increases motivation. Studies have shown that this reward causes extrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic motivation. What happens is that the person is initially motivated by the reward but as time passes the person becomes less and less interested in the reward. The reason is control and the effect is called undermining effect. The human perceives external rewards as a type of control, in other words the perceived locus of causality is shifted from internal to external. So rather than offering tangible rewards a far better idea is to offer verbal rewards. Verbal rewards like praise satisfy the need for competence as it makes the human feel like he has done a great job. If we look at some present tense organizations we notice the exact opposite: many organizations even today are basing their motivational system on Skinner’s Operant Conditioning offering for example all sorts of bonuses for performance. Skinner’s science is outdated and works best on rats in boxes while humans always have choices.

There is also the free choice paradigm: giving someone something to choose from two possibilities enjoyed by him. The simple idea that the person has a choice increases intrinsic motivation. This is one of the main reasons why Agile Scrum works so well: developers choose their tasks from the pool of tasks discussed in the sprint planning, rather than being forced to do a task or another by a Project Manager in the waterfall project management style.

Other factors that increase intrinsic motivation are the absence of pressure, optimal challenges (SDT agrees with the Flow state discussed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and warmth style rather than cold or distant.

SDT also contains the need-density hypothesis which suggests that most popular video games satisfy all three psychological needs discussed (competence, relatedness and autonomy) and people who fail to have these needs satisfied in the real world go to the virtual world of video games to have them satisfied. I have a friend in this exact situation: no romantic life, no family life and a boring job who is addicted to World of Warcraft. I asked him: why do you play this video game so much? He said that the chat in the game helped him make some good friends. He even plans to visit them even though they live in a different country. So that is relatedness need getting satisfied and we can see that in his real life relatedness is what he is missing the most. I’m quite immune to video games because I talk with my family, my therapist and a couple of friends (relatedness), I take online courses and read books (competence) and I basically do what I want (autonomy).

There are a lot more interesting things discussed in this course like the relationship between money or fame or power and well being but I will let you discover them in the course.

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