Kennon Sheldon: “Motivations for change: Self-determination theory –a motivational account of the quest for social change”


Invited Lecture by professor Kennon Sheldon, University of Missouri, USA, at the Social Learning Workshop “Motivations, relations and transformations: the role of social learning in collective agency for social innovation“.

The Social Learning Workshop was an Integration Workshop organized within the EU FP7 Funded TRANSIT project. TRANSIT is an international research project that aims to develop a theory of Transformative Social Innovation that is useful to both research and practice.

“Motivations for change: Self-determination theory –a motivational account of the quest for social change”

Report by Isabel Lema-Blanco

Professor Sheldon introduces the study of human behaviour from the cultural and social perspective, describing possible rational processes that motivate people to organize and act according to a common purpose (e.g. positive benefits perceived by people involved). Sheldon reflect as well on reasons that explain differences between high motivated people and those who are not.

Why not all people are interested in the activities? Why just some people are committed to work for social change and not others? 

Different psychological theories have explained the relation between motivation and behaviour and, according to Sheldon, the Self-Determination Theory has contributed to explain the factors and conditions that influence individual´s intrinsic motivations (applied to those who initially do not receive an external reward), trying to find out why people continue to act willingly, even joyfully, without complaint, even when the activity they are committed, is not pleasant. The psychological literature demonstrates that intrinsic motivation comes from people´s curiosity, interests and passions, experiencing a full sense of choice and commitment. Such behaviour is internalized automatically and self-determined.

Related to motivations Professor Sheldon presented the concept of Basic Psychological Needs arguing that popular Maslow’s theory on basic needs (Maslow´s pyramid) seems not to be correct in terms of the hierarchical satisfaction of human needs: “There is not enough evidence of the consistency of the “hierarchical contingency” implied in the Maslow’s theory (it is not true that when need X is met, people start thinking about next level up from X). Besides, it is not clear that self-esteem is a true need (should we really strive for it?) and more people than just 1 in 1000 are self-actualizing”. On the contrary, the Self-determination theory explains that the psychological needs are “experiential nutrients” that all human beings need to experience in order to grow and be happy.

According to the Self Determination Theory there are 3 basic needs: Autonomy: doing what you agree with; Competence: doing it well; and Relatedness: connecting with others.

Sheldon highlights the importance of autonomy support. Autonomy (which is not similar to independence) means “being the owner of your own behaviour”. Despite most of social relations are unequal power relations (parent/child, teacher/student, boss/employee, coach/athlete, doctor/patient, etc.), the powered part of the relationship can take advantage of the power difference and support subordinate´s perceived autonomy, which contributes to maintain his/her intrinsic motivation: when authorities help subordinates to get autonomy, this helps them mature and internalize their motivations. According to self-determination theory, autonomy can be enhanced, for example, whether subordinates are provided with the most possible options (to be chosen) or if substantial arguments support the unique possible alternative.

Participants discussed the importance of motivating groups of people in terms of enhancing certain behaviours of practices that are not necessarily pleasant or enjoyable for people. Psychological studies should provide deeper “knowledge on how motivations work, explaining how people end up accepting implicit social rules and agreements in activities they dislike, such as paying taxes”.

The ensuing discussions addressed also the issue of empathy, due to the fact that social structures are not always empathy supportive. So, could empathy be an outcome of a social learning process? Working with communities and organizations is a very important motivation which has also been observed within the social initiatives studied in TRANSIT. Theoretically, motivation does not foster empathy due to the fact that empathy is grounded on personal experience and it is developed along a process.

Besides, if there is a sequence of different types of motivation, how do they interact? How collective activisms emerge? Participants also reflected on the relation between individual and context and how this is framed in the self-determination theory. Intrinsic motivation undermines because of stressful conditions but it can be enhanced as well if we make it enjoyable, funny, interesting or fulfilling (e.g. capitalism is not autonomy supportive but the economic system provides many types of satisfactory experiences to people).

Psychological research explains that creating supportive environments helps people to change the context, gaining autonomy or agency capacity. This also relates with the need for relatedness, and the need of enhancing group identity and providing spaces where people feel good in some way (as some SI initiatives have learned to do overtime).

Motivations for change: Self-determination theory –a motivational account of the quest for social change. Download Sheldon’s presentation HERE

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