How to Motivate a Human—The Definitive Guide (Part I)
Humans and avocados
Plants are stubborn, ungrateful little creatures.
Our basil is dying, and it shows absolutely no reaction to my many attempts to revive it. “When you sprout new baby leaves, you’ll earn a day by the window,” I try to bribe it, to no avail. As more leaves begin to wither, some positive reinforcement — a few pats and a reassurance that “yellow is the new green” — gives the basil a boost in vitality long enough for me to breathe in. Breathe out. Maybe the timing wasn’t right. Maybe it’s thirsty! As I give it the eight glasses of water I had rationed for myself, my girlfriend, Sasha, warns me that I am probably overwatering it, which is something you can do to plants, and I knew that. A friend recommends reading about possible nutrient deficiencies, since yellow leaves might be an indication of some underlying bla bla bla; I reckon he doesn’t know that much about plants anyway. Heck, when he has a basil, he can give it all the nutrients he wants.
With the finality of a last desperate attempt, I close the damned plant up in a cupboard so it can think about the shame it has brought upon our household.
If you’re worried about the mental health of my basil, rest assured the tribulations did wonders to its character and now it’s totally fine. Unfortunately, the same can probably not be said about the people in our lives we try to motivate using similar techniques. We see the results constantly: children resisting our requests or demands, adolescents becoming apathetic in school, adults performing poorly at work. We try harder, we fail, we wonder why they won’t cooperate, and we notice that our relationship with them is suffering.
Why is it that we so often act toward fellow humans as if we were training a stubborn dog? Maybe we employ these strategies — we scream, we bribe, we micromanage, we withhold love and then overcompensate — because we think they will work and we genuinely care about the outcome (this is common with parents, see Ryan & Deci, 2017, Chapter 13). Or we react to particular situations out of habit, perhaps learned from the way our parents acted towards us in childhood. I’m certainly guilty of both… Long after I vowed to stop being controlling towards my younger siblings, I still sometimes struggle to resist old impulses to be harsh, mean, or cold when they misbehave.
But humans can change. For me, that change began many years ago when I laid my hands on Deci & Flaste’s (1996) wonderful little book Why We do What We Do, which gave me my first glimpse into the science of motivation. It had a big impact on me, even though I wasn’t ready to fully understand the book at the time, and a little seed was planted. I carried the seed through many experiences, introspections, and psychology classes; now it seems to be sprouting.
Today I’d like to share with you some ideas that may help you become more effective friends, parents, bosses, even plant owners, without placing additional strains on your relationships. With this article, rather than teaching you different strategies to get others to do what you want, I hope to provide you with a framework, a way of thinking about motivation, that can be useful in many situations throughout your life and empower you to help others make the most out of theirs. In the next paragraphs you will find key insights from self-determination theory (described in superb detail in Ryan & Deci, 2017) and be invited to reflect on your role as a facilitator, not creator, of motivation.
The Challenge of Motivating Others
Start with plants. The basil — other than stubborn — is a relatively simple creature. Anyone could have told me that I was probably failing to provide our plant with the necessary nutrients for its growth. With the right soil, adequate water, and plenty of sunlight, its natural path is to grow into a luscious and aromatic little bundle of green joy. No one would suggest that I should learn to motivate my plant to do what it does so very naturally. Humans… might be more kompliziert.
Consider for a moment two common challenges for parents and managers: how to get your children to eat vegetables, and how to get your employees to show up on time and remain engaged throughout the workday. If you’ve ever dealt with these issues, even peripherally, you probably have an idea of how to solve them, supported by the myriad assumptions you have about children, employees, and human nature in general. You might, for example, assume that it is in children’s nature to (1) hate vegetables, (2) do the opposite of what their parents tell them, and (3) act only based on their immediate feelings (likely disgust) without considering rational reasons or the expectations of those around them. Similarly, you might think your employees (1) hate going to work, (2) would do whatever it takes to expend less effort, and (3) only show up at all because of the money and benefits. If this is true, it poses a rather big challenge. How can we solve it?
That’s where more assumptions — about human nature — come into play. You might think people are mostly motivated to avoid punishment and seek pleasure. So you threaten to take away their toys or fire them, or reward them with better toys and money. You might have noticed that people have social emotions, too. So you shame them at a restaurant for disliking the food and lavish them with praise during a staff meeting for delivering a report on time. Best of all, you might have noticed how attached the little creatures or subordinates are… to you. That’s a powerful weapon, because you can play with how much love you give them based on whether they fulfil your expectations. Eat your veggies, get a warm smile and hug; show up late, be completely ignored during the next meeting. Genius!
Ok, perhaps you don’t agree with this approach. Not everyone shares these assumptions or responds exactly the way I described. But did you notice the pattern? The underlying assumption here? The mother of all the littler assumptions? The First Assumption is that you have to motivate them. That they don’t, a priori, want to follow your example, become well-adjusted members of society, grow, and contribute to something meaningful through their work. In essence, that they differ from my basil. This assumption often leads to controlling behavior, the kind I described in the previous paragraph, and believing in it is likely to influence how we deal with the development of our children (e.g. Joussemet, Landry, & Koestner, 2008; Landry et al., 2008), friends, and subordinates. But is the assumption accurate?
The short answer is “not really”; the long answer is much more interesting. Shall we begin?
Psychologists have the hard job of trying to understand the human mind — something that is invisible, often resistant to direct measurements such as those used by physicists and biologists in their experiments, and frustratingly complex. This challenge is compounded because it is often difficult to reconcile processes that are universal and apply to all human beings with those that reflect our individuality.
But, while we may never be able to aspire to discover a formula which explains all human behaviour, the scientific method provides even psychologists with tools to increase our knowledge of this baffling subject matter. Over many decades researchers have put forth increasingly detailed theories that can guide our thinking, explain empirical findings, and predict the effects that new conditions will have on human behaviour and well-being. The best theories rest on assumptions that are both useful and falsifiable — that provide an account for existing evidence and can be proven wrong as new evidence accumulates.
Among them is self-determination theory (SDT). Developed by Edward “Ed” L. Deci and Richard “Rich” M. Ryan and refined over more than four decades by many researchers, it attempts to explain human motivation and describe the conditions under which humans flourish. It is a theory of who we are and why we do what we do, and relates our individual needs and motives to the social environment we are embedded in. It, too, rests on one important assumption, what Deci and Ryan (2000, 2014, p. 16) call an organismic meta-theory: “people are active organisms, with evolved tendencies toward growing, mastering ambient challenges, and integrating new experiences into a coherent sense of self.” (Web; for a short discussion of the history of this concept, check out the beginning of Ryan, 1995) According to self-determination theory, people not only act based on their intrinsic desires and interests, but also actively strive to adopt into their sense of self the external regulations imposed by their social environment and specific others whom they want to be more attached to (Deci & Ryan, 2000). In an investigation on parenting small children, Landry and her colleagues put it this way: “self-determination theory suggests that children have an innate propensity toward mastery of their environment, and that the internalization of values, behaviours, and attitudes in the social surround is a spontaneous, natural process.” (Landry et al., 2008, p. 173)
Pause. How dare I tell you that acquiring table manners or learning to make your bed every morning is a “spontaneous, natural process”? Why on Earth would there be so many books on parenting if children were born eager to absorb all the rules, constraints, and responsibilities we so laboriously try to impose on them? Clearly, I’ve never tried to motivate someone in their teens to do something they did not want to do.
Unpause. You see, Ed and Rich’s organismic perspective takes these concerns into account. As we now know, “SDT assumes that people are by nature active and self-motivated, curious and interested, vital and eager to succeed […].” (Deci & Ryan, 2008a, p. 14) But it wouldn’t be such a useful theory if it stopped there. So let’s keep going: “The theory recognises, however, that people can also be alienated and mechanized or passive and disaffected.” (p. 14) That does sound more like a teenager! “SDT accounts for these differences in terms of the types of motivation, which result from the interaction between people’s inherent active nature and the social environments that either support or thwart that nature.” (p. 14) This is the kind of sentence that makes me wonder. Which ‘types’ of motivation? Am I the one ‘thwarting’ that nature? How do I stop thwarting it and support it instead?
Self-determination theory is very thorough (Why We Do What We Do covers many important aspects, but the tome that fully describes the theory and its implications for various life domains is Ryan & Deci, 2017), and I won’t cover all of it in this article. Besides the organismic meta-theory underlying all of SDT, though, there are two important ideas from SDT that you can use to improve the way you think about motivation and how you relate to your children, subordinates, and friends: the three basic psychological needs necessary for optimal development; and an account of motivation which goes beyond the intrinsic–extrinsic dichotomy, describing the different degrees to which external regulations can be more or less integrated into one’s sense of self.
Three Basic Psychological Needs
Once again, start with plants.
If you put a rooted avocado pit in a pot of earth it will probably grow into a tree, because it is in the nature of avocados to do that. It happens naturally. But not all pits become trees; some shrivel and decompose. They fail to thrive because the climate is inadequate, or the necessary nutrients are lacking. They need sun; they need water; and they need the right temperature. Those elements do not make trees grow, but they are the nutriments that the developing avocados need, that are necessary in order for the avocados to do what they do naturally. (Deci & Flaste, 1996, p. 98)
Humans are no avocado pits; nor are we basil plants. Yet we, too, seem to have basic needs we must meet for optimal survival and growth. Physiological needs, such as those for food, water, and sex, are necessary for the survival of our bodies and species. When in lack of nutrients, we feel strong urges — hunger, thirst, etc. — to acquire them, so that we may keep on living. But to grow as people, integrate harmoniously into society, and thrive as human beings, food, water, and sex are not enough. And it was clear to early observers that humans, even infants, did not only take action to satisfy their needs for nutrients and reproduction. Something else must go on inside, energizing us to take all sorts of different actions. Psychologists called this motivation, and have been trying to figure out how it works and where it comes from ever since.
Through years of empirical studies and inductive reasoning, self-determination theorists have identified three basic psychological needs without whose satisfaction optimal growth is not possible. These needs, they believe, are the key to understanding motivation: we are motivated to take action to fulfill these needs, and their fulfilment helps us sustain motivation. They are the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Autonomy refers to a sense of volition, congruency, and integration. An action you take is autonomous if you fully endorse it — if it is congruent with your interests and values and integrated into your sense of self. Some cultures value independence and uniqueness; in others, interdependence and harmony are paramount (see Kim & Markus, 1999, for an interesting and easy to read account of these differences; another delightful read on how culture can shape our sense of self is Markus & Kitayama, 1991). But in all cultures studied so far, autonomy is a necessary nutriment for human well-being, and it is not equal to independence (see Ryan & Deci, 2006, for a review). Unfortunately, much of what we do is far from truly autonomous. SDT acknowledges this in proposing that every value or action that is not truly intrinsic — that is not its own reward — can be placed on a continuum from fully controlled to fully autonomous, and the degree to which an action is autonomous versus externally controlled has predictable consequences. We will look at this continuum in more detail later.
Competence refers to feelings of effectance and mastery, concepts which arose from earlier theories dealing with effectance motivation, “(a) the organism’s desire to produce an effect on the environment; (b) the added goal of dealing effectively or competently with the environment; and (с) the resulting feelings of efficacy.” (original emphasis, Harter, 1978, p. 35; for an earlier discussion see also White, 1959)
If autonomy is genuinely wanting to do a thing, competence is the feeling of being able to do the thing well. This does not mean that you only satisfy your competence need when you have already mastered a task; instead, the need for competence is supported by opportunities to use your skills, explore your environment, and expand your skills in a supportive environment: competence also means believing you can learn to do the thing well. As such, competence “wanes in contexts in which challenges are too difficult, negative feedback is pervasive, or feelings of mastery and effectiveness are diminished or undermined by interpersonal factors such as person-focused criticism and social comparisons.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11)
Relatedness is the need to feel socially connected. This entails feeling like you are cared for by others, and, just as importantly, that you care for others. It means both receiving and giving love and affection. Only then can you feel the sense of belongingness and importance within a social circle associated with relatedness. Thus, Ryan and Deci (2017) stress that relatedness also pertains “to a sense of being integral to social organizations beyond oneself […] both by being connected to close others and by being a significant member of social groups.” (p. 11; for a different description of our “need to belong”, see Baumeister & Leary, 1995)
Conceptual Interlude: Criteria for a Basic Psychological Need
What makes a basic psychological need?
SDT researchers were not the only ones concerned with this question. Since the 1930s, many attempts have been made to describe both the requirements for something to be considered a need and what the specific needs might be. [If you are interested in this history, you can find a good summary in Deci & Ryan (2000, pp. 228–232) or, in a more accessible style, in Ryan & Deci (2017, pp. 81–88)]. However, SDT built on these ideas in important ways, not least by creating a very short and useful list of needs that underlies and explains all other processes in their theory. Without the three needs, many of their early findings did not make sense; with the needs, they all fall into place beautifully.
SDT’s list of needs is short by default, but not considered categorically complete. The reason why Ed and Rich have not added a fourth or fifth need to their theory is that none of the other needs they have considered satisfied the basic requirements for a basic psychological need (Ryan & Deci, 2017, pp. 250–254). To establish whether a candidate need truly is a basic need, six criteria must be fulfilled (these criteria overlap greatly with those proposed by Baumeister & Leary, 1995):
- The satisfaction of a need must enhance psychological health, integrity, and well-being, and its frustration must hurt wellness. It is not enough that fulfilling a need has positive outcomes and frustrating it doesn’t; there must be clear losses in well-being due to the frustration, if the candidate variable is to be a basic need.
- The definition must specify content: what you have to do to satisfy a need must be clear from its definition. “The competence, autonomy, and relatedness needs, for example, make clear what people need to do in order to be healthy — for example, do important activities well, endorse their actions, and connect with others. In contrast, a concept such as self-actualization (Maslow, 1971) provides little specificity about the contents that would satisfy it.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 251)
- The concept must be empirically useful. As they put it: “the postulate of a need must be essential to explain or interpret empirical phenomena.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 251) If a specific intervention enhances wellness or intrinsic motivation, this relationship should be mediated by the fulfilment of at least one of the needs: only those participants who experienced a lift in need fulfilment because of the intervention should show improved outcomes.
- It must be a growth rather than a deficit need. Hunger and thirst are deficit needs: you feel them almost exclusively when you are lacking something — in this case nutrients or water. But basic psychological needs, within SDT, “facilitate healthy development and are active on an ongoing basis.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 251)
- It must be a cause rather than an outcome. Like you wouldn’t consider plant growth a basic plant need, mental health, for example, cannot be a basic psychological need because it is an outcome of the satisfaction or thwarting of psychological needs.
- It must be universal. If a need does not exist in another culture or matter for people of different ages, it cannot be a basic need.
So far, only the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness satisfy these criteria and are considered, within STD, to be basic psychological needs.
Intrinsic, Extrinsic, Motivation, Shmotivation
Motivation simply means to be moved to act, but what moves people to act varies greatly from person to person and from situation to situation. People can be moved to act by external rewards and punishments, by internalized pressures and standards, or even by values and interests. (Ryan & Moller, 2017, p. 215)
You have probably heard the terms intrinsic and extrinsic motivation before. By laypersons and psychologists alike, they are used to emphasise two different kinds of motivation, rather than different levels or amounts of motivation. Intrinsic motivation energises you to act because of your interests or values: the activity you engage in is its own reward. The reward is intrinsic to the activity. For example, a child may do his homework because he authentically loves the challenge and wants to learn more about the week’s topic; and an elderly woman may do her crossword puzzles because she delights in figuring out the words. This sort of intrinsic exploration is not unique to humans either: animals explore too (e.g., White, 1959), although seldom with homework or puzzles.
Extrinsic motivation energises you to act so that you may acquire a “separable outcome.” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 55) The activity itself is said to be instrumental: like a hammer or a pair of scissors, you use it as a means to obtain or accomplish something else. So the child might do his homework in order to get a good grade and approval from his parents and teachers, or perhaps so he may one day fulfil his dream of becoming a physicist; the elderly woman may believe that doing crossword puzzles will stave off dementia, and so completes some every night with that purpose in mind.
Most of our behaviour is extrinsically motivated. It is the focus of this article, in fact, to help you become a better ‘extrinsic motivator’. But it might be useful to first look briefly at how we can influence intrinsic motivation.
Supporting and Thwarting Intrinsic Motivation
You cannot create intrinsic motivation in another person. But if you wait quietly and pay attention, you might be able to hear its approaching footsteps. Then you can invite it closer or scare it off. How? For intrinsic motivation to be nurtured and sustained, the needs for competence and autonomy need to be satisfied. More specifically, the external environment must be perceived, by the person in question, to support competence and autonomy.
Start with competence. To support it, provide: optimal challenges (neither boringly easy nor insurmountably hard); positive performance feedback; and freedom from demeaning evaluations. To thwart it, do everything you can to make your target feel incompetent, whether it be negative feedback, challenges that clearly exceed their skills, and negative comparisons with important others (please don’t do this).
But competence is not enough. To be optimally intrinsically motivated, people need to also feel autonomous.
And autonomy can be thwarted just as easily. Tangible and contingent rewards (real ‘things’ — money included — that you only receive if you perform well on a task), deadlines, lack of choice in how or when to carry out a task, threats, competition pressure: all thwart our need for autonomy and scare off intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000); they are controllers of behaviour. In the next article, we will look more deeply into the opposite: autonomy support, as a way to enhance both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. But first, we need to take a deeper look into extrinsic motivation itself; it comes in many colours, and a clearer knowledge of them will likely illuminate facets of your life as well.
(If you want to learn more about intrinsic motivation, how to nurture it and thwart it, have a look at Cognitive Evaluation Theory, one of the six formal mini-theories of SDT, in Ryan & Deci, 2017, Chapters 6 and 7.)
Perhaps that is the secret. It is not what we do, so much as why we do it. — Tyrion Lannister’s thoughts (Martin, 2000)
Much of what we do is not intrinsically motivated. Most of us don’t have an inborn interest to learn all that is taught to us in school, to cook healthy meals at home rather than go out for fast food, or to obey our parents’ and cultures’ regulations. But we do have three basic psychological needs, an inborn tendency to fulfil them, and a self capable of internalising the external regulations regularly fed to us from the outside world.
Ryan and Deci (2017) recognised these tendencies and proposed a process — described in detail as Organismic Integration Theory (Chapter 8) — through which all sorts of external motivations can be assimilated into our sense of self to different degrees and acted upon with more or less autonomy. Unlike previous theorists, they expanded the meaning of extrinsic motivation by placing all external regulations on a continuum from more controlled to more autonomous. I will provide a shortened account of this process; if your curiosity is piqued and you want to learn more, I can only recommend you read the relevant chapter in Ryan & Deci (2017).
They called the least autonomous form of regulation external. The word is fitting: these regulations are felt to arise completely from outside our selves and we feel no internal pressure to follow them. When we do follow them, it is purely for instrumental reasons, such as to receive a reward or avoid a punishment. Naturally, when the reward or punishment is no longer in place, we no longer have any motivation to engage in the action. In more academic terms, “the problem with external regulation is not primarily ineffectiveness, because powerful rewards and punishments can control behavior, but is rather lack of maintenance, because without the expectancy in place, behavior is typically not sustained over time.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 184) So if you expect to motivate your child to do well in school by rewarding each good grade with hard cash, you’d do well to save up in advance; as soon as you stop rewarding, your child will have no reason to achieve. And if he was intrinsically motivated to learn in the first place, you might have just thwarted his sense of autonomy and competence enough that he no longer finds it interesting.
Yet, over time, your kid might have learned to entangle his sense of self-worth with his school grades — what Ed and Rich call ego involvement. Or he might have learned to feel guilty or shameful when he receives a bad grade, expecting real or imagined disapproval from others for his performance. This would be evidence that doing well in school had become an introjected regulation. Unlike external regulations, introjections are a tad more endorsed by our selves. Yet they still feel foreign, as if a strange force within us is trying to control us. Indeed, it might feel like a constant state of control: if the rewards and punishments are within you, they walk with you to school, attend the same parties, and only slumber when you do. As such, introjected regulations are more enduring than external ones. But they can lead one to be highly self-critical, to engage in projection, and to have a false sense of self-esteem. And introjects are not part of a developmental stage that is naturally overcome: they often accompany you throughout childhood, adolescence, and adult life.
Next on the continuum is identification, characterised by a much more fulfilled need for autonomy. To identify with a regulation means to consciously endorse it, to understand why it is important, either for society or for you. If your child had been given a good explanation for why he should learn math, received supports for his competence and autonomy, and felt a sense of relatedness unthreatened by his possible performance, he might start to believe that learning math is important. He could imagine himself confidently calculating a tip at a restaurant, or intelligently choosing from different mortgage options, and (autonomously) choose to do his homework, ask questions in class, and study beyond the course material. His motivation to do well in math would be more persistent, relative to an introject, and demand less energy from him because he would, to a large degree, have stopped resisting the regulation.
Finally, an external regulation can be integrated. Integration involves an even greater degree of autonomy, but, most importantly, comes with a sense of inner coherence. In order to integrate an identified regulation, we must understand how this particular value or action fits within our sense of self and agrees with our other values and higher goals. As such, your child may authentically choose to learn math because it will help him become a physicist, something he’s been dreaming about for years, and he will likely be highly motivated to succeed.
Take a moment to reflect on your own life and motivations. Did your parents or superiors impose their regulations on you in a controlling manner? Maybe your parents would punish you if you were caught drinking under-age or your boss scolded you every time you arrived late to the office. What was the effect on you? Did you love them all the more for it and become eager to integrate their values, or did you feel like rebelling but ended up developing an inner pressure to follow the prescriptions anyway? Did you learn to give yourself conditional self-esteem because the significant others in your life loved you more or less depending on whether you acted as you were supposed to? And what degree of integration would you want to help your children and subordinates achieve? If you’d like to help them identify with and integrate regulations, pay attention to their needs.
SDT proposes that the process of internalisation and integration has evolved so we may better satisfy our basic needs. As we integrate a regulation, we gain a greater sense of autonomy in choosing to carry it out; we become more competent and can learn to carry it out well, unimpeded by negative social evaluations and internal pressures; and we fulfil our need for relatedness by learning to navigate our social world and authentically follow the cultural values that bring us closer to others. However, the three needs are also the essential nutriments required for full internalisation and integration, and they play different roles at each “stage”.
Actions motivated by external regulations are, by definition, not autonomous. And the sort of frigid directive that typifies them seldom inspires feelings of warmth towards the enforcer. But to perform the action and get the reward — or avoid the punishment — you need, at the very least, some competence. If you are not capable of doing the thing, don’t know how to do the thing, and don’t believe you can find out how to do the thing, no amount of threats or promises can make you do it. To introject a value or regulation, you “must not only feel some competence to perform it but also must care about what others think.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 203) Introjection implies some sort of support for relatedness, even if it is conditional, such as receiving love if you behave well and being rejected if you don’t, at least until you learn to apply this conditional love from within. Identification and integration, in turn, require that you fully endorse the values and actions; you can’t be forced to identify with a value because the very nature of identification requires autonomy.
“When situations allow this triad of satisfactions, individuals in fact become both more autonomous and more homonomous (Angyal, 1965) — that is, both more integrated within themselves and more integrated with the social world around them.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 203) This way, the process of organismic integration helps us achieve well-being within ourselves and within a society and culture.
How to Motivate a Human: What You Should Know
The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly. That most people show considerable effort, agency, and commitment in their lives appears, in fact, to be more normative than exceptional, suggesting some very positive and persistent features of human nature.
Yet, it is also clear that the human spirit can be diminished or crushed and that individuals sometimes reject growth and responsibility. Regardless of social strata or cultural origin, examples of both children and adults who are apathetic, alienated, and irresponsible are abundant. Such non-optimal human functioning can be observed not only in our psychological clinics but also among the millions who, for hours a day, sit passively before their televisions, stare blankly from the back of their classrooms, or wait listlessly for the weekend as they go about their jobs. The persistent, proactive, and positive tendencies of human nature are clearly not invariantly apparent. (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 68)
With this article, I endeavoured to let you in on important insights that will help you support the proactive nature of other humans so that you may serve as a facilitator and not a hindrance to their growth, development, and integration within your family, organisation, or society. I hope to have been able to instil new assumptions where old ones were no longer fruitful, and to have given you a taste of how self-determination theory might help you navigate the challenge of motivating humans by helping them do what they do naturally. To conclude, let’s see if we can reduce this knowledge to its basic components and organise them into a simple recipe, more of a set of guiding principles, really, that you can carry in your mind as you go about your day and interact with other humans.
We’ve seen that humans have a natural tendency to explore and grow, become better at what’s important to them, connect meaningfully with others, and integrate into groups and societies. Ed and Rich called it an organismic meta-theory; we can call it the Human Awesomeness Potential. Easier to remember. Remind yourself of it when you look at your toddler who’s venturing into a ‘forbidden’ part of the park, your friend who just lied to your face, and your employee who delivered sloppy work. Don’t let examples of ‘disfunction’ steer you into thinking that it’s in their nature to be defying, arrogant, incompetent liars.
Remember also that, deep down, we’re just like avocados and basil plants. Every human you see on the street or read about on the news shares three basic needs with you — the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness — that are the psychological nutriments required for their development and well-being. Your baby has these needs, your friends have these needs, the people whose languages you don’t understand have these needs, even Donald Trump (probably) has them. And we just can’t function well when they’re thwarted.
Finally, humans are intrinsically motivated creatures, but we’re also capable of being extrinsically motivated. And the type of extrinsic motivation matters. The more autonomous, as opposed to controlled, the motivation, the better it will fare. By supporting or thwarting others’ basic needs within a domain, you can help them identify with and integrate external regulations and motivations (highly autonomous), or you can help them resist and introject them (controlling). To foster resistance and introjection, try to force them to swallow a rule whole, especially by pitting one need against another (you can do what you want, but I won’t love you; or rather, do as I say, and then I’ll love you), and control them as much as possible. To foster identification and integration, support all three basic needs as pertaining to a regulation and trust the human to continue the process on their own. The consequences of each are complex, but here’s a simple version: integration=good; introjection=bad.
In a sentence: all people have a Human Awesomeness Potential, supported by three basic psychological needs; to motivate humans and help them thrive, create an environment that supports all three needs.
It should be clear now that I didn’t support the physiological needs of my basil, and the results spoke for themselves. But often, when dealing with humans, bad results only lead us to do more of the same, especially when we don’t know what we should do instead. That is the focus of Part II of this series: taking what we’ve learned here about self-determination theory and turning it into specific behaviors that support the three needs and enhance motivation.
Thank you for reading!
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