Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Uninteresting tasks and motivation

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Uninteresting tasks and motivation:
How can people be motivated to do unininteresting tasks?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Homework, household chores, paperwork, budgeting. Ask any teenager what they consider an uninteresting task and I would wager the general consensus would lead you to conclude “anything but videogames.” Fortunately, most healthy teenagers, children and adults partake in activities that aren’t intrinsically motivating in order to achieve secondary goals, whether these are good grades in school, a paycheque at the end of the week or maintaining personal fitness.

So how do people become motivated to undertake these activities if they don’t present as interesting for their own sake?
One theory has a head and shoulders advantage above the rest in explaining this. The macro theory known as Self-Determination Theory (SDT). Developed by Deci (1971), SDT encompasses different levels and requirements for a task to be motivating outside of it being interesting. It also boasts the largest and most generally accepted and followed theory of motivation in the current paradigm. Ryan and Deci (2000) Discuss the sub-theory "Organismic Integration Theory", which they introduced in a study in 1985 (Ryan & Deci, 1985 as cited in Ryan and Deci, 2000). This sub-theory goes into great detail about environmental factors on a task and introduce a range of motivating styles.

It’s most basic premise is that people have three needs for motivation; Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. These filter down into regulation styles that in turn affect the amount of effort or motivation a person displays. Understanding this theory and identifying how it’s applied will improve your efforts trying to convince your kids to clean their rooms or your husband to get off the couch and help out.

The theories and skills presented in this chapter are applicable in many walks of life. From parents trying to motivate their children to do homework or household chores, to an employer trying to motivate his or her employees to get a job done.

Motivational theory[edit | edit source]

Self-Determination Theory[edit | edit source]


Overview[edit | edit source]

Deci (1971) discovered there were several factors in motivating a person to undertake a task that was not intrinsically motivating. In his study, Deci conducted several experiments in which extrinsic reward was compared in two forms; monetary reward and verbal reinforcement. He hypothesised that monetary reward would interfere with and diminish intrinsic reward. He also hypothesised that social reward (i.e. verbal reinforcement and encouragement) would build upon the intrinsic motivation for a task. Within this article, Deci conducted three separate experiments to test his hypotheses.

Experiment I

Edward Deci was interested in extrinsic reward, so he created an environment where the individual would be presented with an interesting task in the form of a puzzle. Over several sessions, he repeatedly presented this puzzle and offered a financial reward for each correct formation. After he rectracted the financial reward, it was found that the interest in the task was diminished as they were slower to undertake the task and found themselves more interested in other activities during several free choice periods.

Experiment II

In the second experiment, Deci applied his first study to the field. A bi-weekly college newsletter had a convenient pair of teams working on different editions of the paper on different days of the week. Deci arbitrarily arranged the experiemnt time into four three-week periods to measure separately and then snuck in a confederate. During the second time period, Deci offered financial reward on a per-headline basis, thereby replicating the first experiment. He found that, during the third time period after fiananical reward was retracted, motivation was decreased to below the levels of the first time period. The fourth time period was after a break in study periods, and further measurements showed that motivation was still decreased as compared to the first time period.

Experiment III

In his third experiment, Deci (1971) went back to the puzzle in the lab and basically replicated the first experiment. This time, however, instead of giving monetary reward to the participants in the experimental group, the researcher used positive verbal reinforcement and encouragement. What he found was that participants in this study were more motivated in the third time period to work on the puzzle than in the first time period. This implies that poitive reinforcement of a social ature fosters intrinsic motivation.

The model[edit | edit source]

Self-Determination Theory's seeds were planted by this study, and from here several basic needs were extrapolated and turned into a model. The three basic needs were autonomy, competence and relatedness.

  • Autonomy is the need to feel in control of the direction of the task. Deci's 1971 study showed that monetary reward was perceived as a controlling factor which undermined the autonomy support in the task, thereby lowering people's motivaion to continue with the task when given a chocie (Deci, 1971).
  • Competence is the need to feel that the individual can do the task asked of them. Deci's study (1971) found that positive feedback improved intrinsic motivation, meaning that when people thought they were considered as competent on the task, they were more motivated to keep doing it (Deci, 1971).
  • Relatedness is the want to be connected to others and to experience caring for others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

Cognitive-Evaluation Theory (CET)[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Deci's 1971 study began a drive towards a theory of motivation, which culminated in 1985 with a study published by Ryan and Deci (1985 as cited in Ryan & Deci, 2000). With this study, environmental factors that are conducive and a hindrace to feeling autonomous in an undertaking were coined into Cognitive-Evaluation Theory.

Locus of causality[edit | edit source]

Ryan and Deci (2000) discuss the locus of causality and how it affects autonomy. The term "locus of causality" refers to where an individual perceives the control is, whether it's a list of chores on the fridge or the boss assigning the report to an employee, which Ryan and Deci (2000) explain as the individual wanting to internalize.
The authors explain that threats to autonomy can come in the form of monetary reward, deadlines and more which are not conducive to internalization of the locus of control and the experience of autonomy.

Organismic Integration Theory (OIT)[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Also within the framework of SDT, a specific sub-theory came into existence discussing contextual factors that mediate the level of motivation individuals experience for completing a task (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This went beyond extrinsic motivation, breaking it down into four categories that identify different levels of motivation from an extrinsic source (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

  • External Regulation - Simply a "do this to get that" approach, usually involving reward seeking or punishment avoidance (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The individual would usually feel controlled from an external source and would comply enough to achieve the reward or avoid the punishment (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

  • Introjected Regulation - A step up from External Regulation, Introjection involves some regulation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The individual does not accept the motivation as their own, though, and involves avoiding anxiety or chasing an ego boost (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

  • Identified Regulation - This is when the individual sees the value in undertaking the task and sees it as important to themselves (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

  • Integrated Regulation - About as close to intrinsic motivation as it gets, Integrated regulation is where the individual fully regulates the motivation for the task within themselves, as it matches up with their own values and beliefs (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The only reason this form of regulation is not intrinsic motivation is because the the task itself is not considered interesting, but is rather to obtain an external outcome (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

The relationship between them[edit | edit source]

OIT's regulation styles are experienced as varying amounts of autonomy by the individual undertaking the task, as discussed by Deci & Ryan (2000). This is important, because facilitating internal regulation is going to be evidenced as putting more effort into a task and affect compliance from the individual (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Ryan and Deci (2000) also address competence and relatedness in OIT, saying that people who undertake an extrinsically motivated task are usually asked by somebody they want to impress or have a relationship with, whether romantic or otherwise. Addressing competence, Ryan and Deci (2000) discuss that people are more likely to participate in activities that are perceived as valuable to social groups they are a part of.
Internal regulation can further be harboured by providing choice, self-direction and encouragement (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Internalizing the locus of control is conducive towards motivation for undertaking a task, while things like imposed goals and deadlines tend to take that locus away from the individual (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Applying the theories to uninteresting tasks[edit | edit source]

There have been several studies to test self-determination theory's needs in context. It has been found that it can be used in fitness, in education, work productivity and more.

In academics[edit | edit source]

One study by Reeve, Jang, Hardre and Omura (2002) showed that in a tertiary classroom, a rationale that supports the need for autonomy can have a significantly enhancing effect on people’s motivation. They took a sample of people studying teaching and divided them up into four groups. The first group who were the control group were asked to complete a task on learning conversational Chinese. The second group were given a controlling reason as to why; being told they would receive a test on this. The third group were given a pressure inducing reason; that their chosen profession ought to do this. The last group in the study were told that this task would give them skills that would be handy later in life and provide them with an advantage in their chosen profession, thereby appealing to their values.
The researchers discuss the types of rationale and explain that a rationale on its own about how something is important is not likely to have much of an effect an effect. Instead, they explain why the person being motivated to do the task should do it, and why it lines up with their own values to promote autonomy.

In children[edit | edit source]

Joussemet, Koestner, Lekes and Houlfort (2004) investigated children's self-regulation on an uninteresting task using two separate studies. In the first study they gathered 106 French-speaking children in first, third and fifth grade elementary school in Canada (60 boys, 46 girls) and gave them an uninteresting vigilance task. This task was to press the space bar on a computer every time a letter flashed up on the screen, except when that letter was "x". They either rewarded the children or provided positive feedback in the experimental groups, while they did not affect the control group. The researchers found that autonomy support made for better self-regulation than did reward.

In study two, Joussemet et al. (2004) investigated one of the limitations of their own previous study which was that participants appeared to be influenced by several factors. They explained that the wording of the vigilance task as a "game" may have influenced the children's initial motivation for the task, and that a short period of 5 minutes for engaging in the task may not be very fun, it was surely easier and more entertaining than, say a 15 minute test which would be more externally valid. They argued that their first study may not generalize to a longer activity. This time they got seventy six children from grades three to six (37 boys and 39 girls), who were assigned to one of three groups and given a vigilance task on a computer screen. Between these two studies, the researchers concluded two things. First, it seemed to them that no strategy could change the way they felt while doing the task. Second, when they queried the perceived value of the task, the results indicated it was quite a significant difference. As with other research (Deci, 1971), physical, tangible rewards were shown to not have a positive correlation with intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, the researchers found that autonomy support was given to perceiving an increased value of the task.

In exercise[edit | edit source]

Teixeira, Carraca, Marklan, Silva and Ryan (2012) studied the literature to current date, picking a sample of 72 separate studies in which exercise and physical activity were measured against Self-Determination Theory. The researchers argued that the significant amount of data supported a positive outcome and longer commitment to exercise when presented with autonomy supporting extrinsic motivation. On the other hand, the researchers found that there were negative effects on exercise behaviour when extrinsic motivators presented themselves in a controlling way.

Further, the researcher report that in all the studies, intrinsic motivation was not once associated with null or negative effects on exercise behaviour. They argue that identified regulation - when the individual sees the task as important to themselves (Ryan & Deci, 2000) - had a strong theme of positive behaviours in exercise and commitment to.

One more thing Teixeira et. al. (2012) discuss is that autonomous regulations increased with time as a theme across the studies. This is to mean that the participants in the study regulated themselves and motivated themselves more as time went on, relying less on external support. On the other hand, the researchers found that controlling types of motivation were negatively associated, acting as a detriment to the regulation of exercise behaviour, or at best showing no association at all.

According to the researchers, introjected regulation correlated on a strong basis, with only a single study showing a negative correlation.

In mental health[edit | edit source]

Zuroff, Koestnet, Moskowitz, McBride and Bagby (2012) Investigated the effect of autonomy-supportive practices on the treatment for depression in a clinical setting. 95 depressed outpatients were put through one of three sixteen week treatment programs. They found a strong theme of autonomy-support having positive effects on the treatment of depression over the extended period. This means that te people who felt their goals were chosen by themselves and thought of them as meaningful, they were more autonomously regulating them. This means Identified regulation (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and Integrated Regulation (Ryan & Deci, 2000) had the strongest correlations with sticking with the program and getting a result from the program by the end of the sixteen week period.
Ryan and Deci (2008) further explore clinical settings by discussing the implications of Self-Determination Theory to Psychotherapy. They explain this as an important step because the central task of therapy in this context is to support the client while they explore and create create change in their lives. They explain that it is important for a therapist to be autonomy supporting by having a process focused approach to the therapy as opposed to being outcome-focused. They also explain that it is important to explore and challenge partial internalizations that have become apparent in behaviours the client displays. Ryan and Deci (2008) explaing that it is important for an individual to confront this "introjection" themselves and with support form the therapist, to explore the idea of discarding them.

Applying these theories to your life[edit | edit source]

The theories above have endless options for application. A little imagination and identifying when

  • Like Edward Deci in his 1971 study, most people when motivated by money will lose intrinsic interest and feel less autonomous in their undertakings. Stop offering monetary or other expected reward (time on videogames and other token economies count here, too,) (Deci, 1971).
  • Start using social reinforcement, tell the intended target that they're doing well in an ongoing task or that they've done a good job with helping with the dishes, as Deci did in 1971.
  • Provide a rationale to your request. Giving the individual a reason to try has shown to increase engagement with the task (Reeve, Jang, Hardre and Omura 2002).
  • If the task has to do with children, then call it a game. Joussemet et. al. (2004) explained it as one of the confounds to their experiment.
  • Giving the individual a sense of control over the task, thereby internalizing the locus of control will help in exercise as was shown in Teixeira et. al.'s (2012) review.
  • In goal setting, investigate with the individual what would give it meaning, and allow them to have the final wording of the goal. Zuroff, Koestnet, Moskowitz, McBride and Bagby (2012) used this in a clinical trial and found a large imporvement in the mental states of their patients.
  • Further, if you're looking to motivate yourself, try to find the value of doing the task or achieving the outcome. Value is the central theme to SDT, and the closer the value is related to the task, the more motivating the task is.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

While tasks appear uninteresting, Self-Determination Theory has provided a framework that has been tested again and again and shown to give results in motivating people to undertake tasks of all types. It has also shown that rewards and punishments not only produce less of a result, but can mitigate Interest in a task and cause further difficulties later on. Uninteresting tasks can be made to be interesting if some autonomy support is brought into the equation and the individual uderstands the task as important. Ideally, they would identify with the importance of the task, fully integrating it and reproducing the value within themselves, but for getting chores done around the house this probably isn't necessary.

Take home from this skills that you can use to motivate your children, your husband or wife or employees at work in order to achieve better results.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Emotion. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of Externally mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Journal os Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 10-115.
Joussemet, M., Koestner, R., Lekes, N., & Houlfort, N. (2004). Introducing uninteresting tasks to children: a comparison of effects of reward and autonomy support. Journal of Personality, 72(1), 139-166.
Reeve, J., Jang, H., Hardre, P., & Omura, M. (2002). Providing a rationale in an autonomy-supportive way as a strategy to motivate others during an uninteresting activity. Motivation and Emotion, 26 (3), 183-207.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motvation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2008). A Self-Determination Theory Approach to Psychotherapy: The Motivational Basis For Effective Change. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 186-193.
Teixeira, P. J., Carraca, E. V., Markland, D., Silva, M. N., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9(78).
Zuroff, D. C., Koestner, R., Moskowitz, D. S., McBride, C., & Bagby, R. M. (2012). Therapist's autonomy support and patient's self-criticism predict motivation during brief treatments for depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(9), 903-932.