Carrots, Sticks & Other Ways to Motivate [Self-Determination Theory]

Carrots, Sticks & Other Ways to Motivate [Self-Determination Theory]

– motivation is achieved by being autonomous & having our own internal rewards (tangible, meaningful – tapping their intrinsic values/drives to help motivate
– theory of motivation – developed in the 1970s in the USA – Self-Determination Theory:
– is about autonomous motivation
– how we can be willingly engaged in the things a person does (e.g. A student sees the value of study & therefore engages in it without being coerced)
– it is about identifying the conditions under which this is most likely to happen
– at the core of the theory is that people everywhere have some core psychological needs:
1) a sense of autonomy in what they are doing
2) a sense of competence – that what they do will effect outcomes
3) they need to feel connected to the people around them
– when these conditions are fulfilled, people typically show a lot of volition for doing the things they wish to &/or need to do – the quality of such engagement is also much greater
– the theory is applied in a wide variety of contexts, including schools

Motivation/Goals & Change
– things to remember:
– motivation occurs on a spectrum
– it also varies across activities (situation-dependent)
– other things we know:
– humans like instant gratification
– humans are very good at developing habits (automatised behaviours)
– the million dollar question is: how can we motivate ourselves (goals/feeling good etc.,) to do something we feel less motivated to do
– this is why it is important to drill down deep into why a person wishes to change (think also the “stages of change” model)
– if there is a big goal – this can seem insurmountable
– therefore it is recommended to break down goals into small steps /goals & wherever possible make these into habits – automatising behaviour in the new, desired direction with intrinsic (internal or self-motivation – engaging in the behaviour for the joy, the larger goal you are working towards) rewards helping to make such changes become part of your lifestyle
– extrinsic motivators – external motivators – often involve pressure & the feeling you are doing something / changing your behaviour for somebody else
[note: if “bad habits” can be formed, so too can “good habits”]

The School Environment & Motivation

The developers noted that they approached teachers about how they motivated the unmotivated child – answers given were:
A) sanctions/punishments for the unmotivated child with respect to homework
B) use of a token economy (gold stars) as rewards for doing homework
[such answers were attributed to what the psychologists called “controlling teachers” – who applied punishments & rewards from the “outside”]
C) there is obviously something going deeper on for the child & I need to empathically find out what the issue is & help them tackle the obstacles to participating & being self-motivating
[this kinds of answers was attributed to what the psychologists/researchers called “autonomous-supporting teachers”]

A) & B) type teaching approaches led to poorer performance over time & less self-motivation & less interest in school. The students also wanted lower levels of challenge & for things to be easier so that they did not make mistakes. The students also showed less initiative & less interest in attempting problems on their own. Confidence similarly fell over time with respect to their ability to solve problems independently.
C) type teaching resulted in increased engagement in schooling & desire to approach challenge. Self-esteem was noted to increase
– it is believed a classroom environment can have a powerful impact on a child’s motivation & wellbeing.
– intrinsic motivation boosts agency & autonomy

The Home Environment & Motivation

– parents need to find out what is going on – from their child’s perspective
– what are the child’s challenges as they see them
– all the time – try to be sympathetic/empathic to their lack of motivation/interest (all of us experience periods of not being motivated)
[note: parents often offer large rewards in the hope of seeing a big, immediate change – the problem is that this often does not result in the child internalising a new value/approach; inadvertently the message is also conveyed that this work is not worth doing -in it’s own right – without carrots to sweeten/mask the deal

– prior to the 1970s & the Self-Determination Theory – rewards & punishments were typically applied outside or external to the person, or in other words – carrots & sticks – reinforcements & rewards are the only means to motivating behaviour [it should be noted these can, & still do work] – the problem is the quality of behaviour change achieved & whether such change persists/is sustained over time
– now the focus is also upon how to internalise the desire to keep striving, even when rewards are not immediate (or even going to necessarily appear in the medium term)

– a study into the use of SDT showed that parents who used rewards to get children to achieve high grades at school – this often backfired on the child because they then took easier courses in College (so that less challenge was encountered (& minimising the chance for mistakes) – it showed that the parental reward structure can backfire with respect to learning difficult subjects such as STEM

The Brain & Motivation
– prefrontal cortex & ventral striatum are involved in reward
– engagement in activity is associated with the lateral prefrontal cortical areas of the brain
– when a person is pushing themselves to do something there is a lot of medial prefrontal cortical activity in the brain
[essentially, there are different brain activity patterns for intrinsic (self-motivation) & extrnsic/external (forced/pressured) motivation | this brain science is useful because it can confirm behavioural findings about motivation] [Neuroscience is also showing interesting findings with respect to “autonomy-supporting” partners in intimate relationships & closeness in relationships]
– the neurotransmitter – dopamine – between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain (very few neurons produce dopamine)
– dopamine is believed to be a mechanism of motivation rather than feeling good
– it does not cause motivation
[dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin & endorphins – are the quartet of so-called happiness hormones or neurotransmitters]

How to boost dopamine:
1) diet – almonds, bananas, avocados, eggs, beans, fish, chicken
2) exercise (both for physical & mental health)
3) meditation
4) massage
5) sleep
6) listen to music

Q – are humans motivated to be altruistic to others?
– helping satisfies 3 basic /universal psychological needs:
– sense of autonomy / agency
– feeling of effectiveness/competence
– connecting with others fulfils a sense of relatedness
– general well-being goes up & it is believed these internal/intrinsic satisfactions drive altruistic behaviour
– there are questions about motives for providing/receive help -if provided authentically /genuinely, the more effective is such help
– links to materialism as a motivator too & how it can be deleterious

Source: ABCRN – AITM | Podcast: 12 August 2018


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