10.08.2022 |

Episode #2 of the course Introduction to positive psychology by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome back! In the first lecture, we introduced you to some of the history of positive psychology. In today’s lecture, we are going to tackle one of the major topics of study in the field, motivation. Why do people do the things they do? What drives our thoughts, emotions, or behaviors? These are some of the key questions that positive psychologists have attempted to answer by conducting research on underlying human motivation.

Now, some of our motivations are more primal in nature. That is, we have certain biological drives and instincts that direct our actions toward fulfilling a particular physiological need. Easily, the most famous theory on this topic is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There is a strong chance that you have heard of this theory. Essentially, Maslow argued that human needs can be categorized in a hierarchy (which looks like a pyramid) with our most basic needs (hunger and thirst) at the bottom. From there, the next rung on the ladder is safety needs (shelter, security, stability), then belongingness (love and acceptance), esteem needs (independence, respect, recognition), self-actualization needs (reaching our full potential), and self-transcendence needs (establishing meaning beyond yourself) (Fallatah & Syed, 2017). The theory broadly suggests that we have to meet our basic needs first before we can progress to safety needs, followed by esteem needs and so on. According to Maslow, only a small percentage of people become fully self-actualized or achieve self-transcendence.

Now, more modern theories of motivation have placed more emphasis on the psychological needs behind motivation than physiological needs. Intrinsic motivation describes being motivated to behave just for the pleasure of doing something. For instance, a young child may enjoy reading because it’s fun and it allows them to use their imagination. In contrast, extrinsic motivation refers to being driven to act as a result of receiving an external reward of some kind (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This could be money or other rewards like praise or recognition. While extrinsic rewards can be beneficial in shaping behavior, ideally, being internally motivated is more influential. For instance, back to our reading example. If a child is paid to read books (extrinsic reward), they will likely read them; however, if the reward is taken away (i.e., stop paying them), they will more than likely stop reading. Yet, if they are internally motivated to read (for enjoyment), an external reward isn’t required and the behavior will be sustained over time. Furthermore, internal motivation supports a person’s sense of autonomy and independence (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci completed much of the seminal work on human motivation. They conducted a number of studies on the role of internal motivation (which they called autonomous motivation) in guiding various behaviors. The culmination of this work resulted in the creation of their very influential Self-determination theory (SDT). The SDT is a comprehensive motivation theory that incorporates both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The theory is comprised of three primary needs (Deci & Ryan, 2012):

1. Competence (being able to master your environment)

2. Relatedness (having supportive relationships)

3. Autonomy (having independence over ones life)

In order to live our best lives, SDT states that we should try to meet all three needs wherever possible. At different points in our lives, all of the needs, some of the needs, or even none of the needs could be met. Basically, as humans, we are continually adjusting our behavior to have these needs met. Unfortunately, if these needs go unmet, our psychological health will suffer. Since the introduction of SDT, hundreds of studies have tested the theory in many different occupations and life domains. Overall, the robustness of the theory has been supported time and again. To learn more about this theory, you can visit the website of Center for Self-Determination Theory (CSDT).

That brings this lecture to an end. In the next lecture, we are going to discuss another primary motivator for human behavior, the search for happiness. See you in the next lecture!


Recommended book

Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness by Richard Ryan and Edward L. Deci



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