November 12, 2015

Autonomous motivation: interesting and/or important

I'd like to clear up a possible misunderstanding about the distinction between intrinsic motivation (doing what you find interesting) and internalized motivation (doing what you find important). Ed Deci explains in this video that the distinction between controlled and autonomous motivation is an important one. Our motivation is controlled when we are either coerced or seduced into a behavior. When our motivation is controlled we may experience stress and anxiety. Also, we find it harder to persist and the quality of our performance is relatively low. When we are autonomously motivated we experience willingness and volition. We also feel and perform better and persist longer.

There are two types of autonomous motivation. The first is intrinsic motivation, the second is internalized motivation. We are intrinsically motivated when we find the activity interesting and pleasurable. We do not need to be encouraged or rewarded to do the activity. We like to do it for its own sake.

Internalized motivation is what makes us do things which are in accordance with our core beliefs and values. Put differently: when you are doing what you find important and what you believe in. In such situations you are also fully endorsing what you are doing which enhances your performance in several ways. Thus autonomous motivation is doing what you find interesting and/or important.

The distinction between interesting and important is less rigid than you might think. With intrinsic motivation the fact that you find something interesting is the reason for doing it. However, this does not mean that intrinsic motivation is unimportant. Research shows intrinsic motivation is the most important factor behind learning and innovation.

With internalized motivation the fact that you find something important is the reason for doing it. However, this does not mean that internalized motivation only involves things which are uninteresting or boring. That does not have to be the case. What is true is that the factor 'interesting' is not the initial reason for doing it. It can certainly happen that, once you are doing the activity, you discover within it things you find interesting.

What we find interesting is not fixed. It keeps evolving. Any complex subject can become interesting when we engage in it. And even simple and routine activities can become interesting when we perform them mindfully. It is not true that what we find important cannot also be or become interesting. That may well happen.

Intrinsic motivation is about doing what you find interesting but it also has an important side to it. Internalized motivation is about doing what you find important but there may also be an enjoyable side to it.

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