Motivation = “Self-Determination” + Common Sense

Self-Determination Theory, one of the most important theories of motivation, tends to operate behind the scenes.

That is: researchers often use self-determination theory to explain why something else works.

The theory itself argues that humans are motivated by a desire for three basic things.




Unlike many terms in psychology, those three mean exactly what you think they mean. So, “competence” means, basically, the feeling that I’m skillful at whatever I’m doing. “Relatedness” means, basically, “connected with others.” And so forth.

When giving teachers advice, researchers often turn to self-determination theory to explain why a particular set of suggestions might help students learn.

Goals and Feedback

Common sense tells teachers that we should make goals clear to our students. And, we should offer them specific feedback.

But, why might those two things help? Specifically, why might they promote motivation?

Researchers in Belgium and The Netherlands hypothesized that clear goals and specific feedback might encourage self-determination.


If I, as a student, know what the goals are, I can work more independently to achieve them. That will make me feel autonomous, and competent.

Likewise, specific feedback will allow me to work effectively–that is, competently.

And, of course, goals and (especially) feedback will increase my sense of relatedness with my teacher.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers worked with 500+ high school students taking PE classes. They surveyed them 6 times about their classes, asking about clarity of goals and feedback, and measuring their feelings of autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

What did they find?

(Too Much Of) A Good Thing

Sure enough, they found that clear goals and precise feedback helped students feel “in charge of their learning processes”: that is, autonomous.

They also felt more competent, and more connected and cared for.

In brief: goals and feedback can help students in a number of ways. In the world of motivation theory, they boost the three key components of self-determination theory.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this research puts an asterisk on that finding. While feedback helps, lots and lots of feedback reduces feelings of both competence and relatedness.

In fact, these findings make sense. If my teacher has to give me lots of feedback, the implication is that I’m not very good at what I’m doing–that is, not very competent.

And, that hovering might well feel irritating–reducing rather than increasing relatedness.

In other words, as is so often true, teachers have to apply research-based advice skillfully. We want to have clear goals and helpful feedback. And, we want to ensure that “helpful feedback” doesn’t tip over into excessive feedback.

Paradoxically, too much of a good thing can convert motivation into demotivation.

tags: category: L&B Blog

3 Responses to Motivation = “Self-Determination” + Common Sense

  1. Robert Irby says:

    This research requires quite a stretch. Belgium and Norway students significantly dissimilar to US students and even more dissimilar to the diverse populations of US urban schools. It would also be beneficial to my understanding of this research to see the actual survey questions.

    • Andrew Watson says:

      Hello, Robert — thanks for the feedback. You can find the survey questions in the linked study, and in the supplementary data.

  2. Art jefferson Marr says:

    The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation comes down to one question.

    What is an incentive or reinforcer?

    For a Skinnerian behaviorist, a reinforcer is any event virtual or real that changes any attribute of behavior, from rate to intensity to form.
    For a biological behaviorist, a reinforcer is a positive change in a specific neurologic state that is embodied by an affective tone or feeling.

    For the Skinnerian, all reinforcement is extrinsic, and is justified procedurally. For the biological behaviorist, all reinforcement is intrinsic, and is justified realistically, or through an understanding of how the brain works. Either perspective denies separate categorical entities of extrinsic and intrinsic reward. Ultimately however, a sound neurologically grounded explanation of incentive motivation resolves the distinction, which given our current knowledge, is that there is no distinction at all.

    The concept of a unified reinforcement theory was proposed by the bio-behaviorists John Donahoe and David Palmer in 1994, and was independently confirmed by the affective neuroscientist Kent Berridge (who added the affective nature of reinforcement) in the same and following decades. Donahoe and Palmer proposed a neurologically grounded definition of reinforcement. Reinforcement reflected a discrepancy principle, when behavior is continually mediated by the activity of dopamine neurons elicited by continuous correction error between predictions and outcomes. Dopamine scales with the importance of the reinforcer, and is responsible for a feeling of energy and arousal, but not pleasure. The reinforcement principle from a Skinnerian behaviorism is still the guiding principle of present-day behaviorists or behavior analysts, but discrepancy principles are now core to single process incentive motivation theories in radical behaviorism as reflected by modern affective neuroscience.

    The difference between these two principles is stark in both principle and practice. Whereas a Skinnerian behaviorist is concerned about the effectiveness of reinforcers, a biological or radical behaviorist Is concerned about how reinforcement induces affect. To a teacher, parent, society, or politic, the effectiveness of reinforcement is paramount. However, for an individual, affect in reinforcement is of first importance, as we generally don’t want to do anything unless we ‘feel’ like it. The latter is reflected in the recent work of Berridge, who emphasized that behavior change must be oriented to eliciting continuous positive affect, which is epitomized by an active and meaningful life. Given this perspective where individual feelings are critical for motivation and positive affect or ‘happiness’, the metric for success for biological behaviorists is not behavioral control, but individual freedom, and a behaviorally engineered society that focuses on constructing the avenues that enrich the meaning or value of life, or an individual’s fully realized self-control in a free society.

    John Donahoe: Behavior Analysis and Neuroscience

    The Joyful Mind: Kringelbach and Berridge

    ‘A Mouse’s Tale’ Learning theory for a lay audience from the perspective of modern affective neuroscience

    Berridge article on history of learning theory

    Berridge Lab

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