Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Autotelic personality motivation

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The autotelic personality:
What motivates the autotelic personality?

Overview[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Focus questions
  1. What is the autotelic personality?
  2. What are the characteristics of the autotelic personality?
  3. What motivates the autotelic personality?
  4. What are the psychological theories behind the autotelic personality?
  5. How can further research help in practical settings?

What is the autotelic personality?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Einstein exhibited [which?] characteristics of an autotelic personality.

Autotelic is composed of two Greek roots: auto (self) and telos (goal). Therefore, an autotelic activity is undertaken with the experience as the main goal. When applied to personality, autotelic individuals are those who do things for their own sake, rather than to achieve some later goal (Baumann, 2012). The concept of an autotelic personality is derived from Csikszentimihalyi’s[spelling?] flow model, in which flow is experienced when an actor perceives a balance between the challenge of an activity and his/her own skills (Baumann, 2012). According to Csikszentimihalyi[spelling?] , autotelic personalities have a greater ability to manage the intricate balance between the play of challenge finding and the work of skill building (Baumann, 2012). Therefore, as flow activities require concentration and a willingness to learn about ones[grammar?] skills, non-autotelic individuals may see difficulty, but autotelic individuals recognise opportunities to build their skills (Baumann, 2012).

Characteristics of the autotelic personality[edit | edit source]

The autotelic personality is a conjunction of receptive qualities such as openness, and active qualities such as, engagement and persistence, particularly in highly challenging activities (Baumann, 2012). Autotelic individuals seek out challenges and skill building, which are supported by sometimes opposing processes which are simultaneously present in autotelic personalities; pure curiosity and the need to achieve; enjoyment and persistence; openness to novelty and narrow concentration; integration and differentiation; independence and cooperation (Baumann, 2012). In order for autotelic individuals to stay focused on challenging tasks and persist, they need to exhibit a degree of goal directedness. The goal directedness allows them to concentrate on what is happening around them and to integrate complicated information toward achieving the goal (Ishimura & Kodama, 2009). Figure 1. Albert Einstein exhibited characteristics of an autotelic personality.

Albert Einstein is an example of an autotelic personality
Einstein is well known for his achievement in the scientific realm (Stefan, 2011). Albert exhibited characteristics of an autotelic personality such as curiosity, in which he said 'my only genius talent is inquisitiveness' (Nazarbayev University Writers Guild, 2018, p. 1). The curiosity of science and the world motivated Einstein to research and discover (Stefan, 2011). Einstein also had a need to achieve, in which he said, 'the value of achievement, lies in the achieving' (Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 77). Einstein wanted to achieve, not for any immediate outcome, but for the experience of achieving in itself. Einstein is therefore, arguably a perfect example of an autotelic personality.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

What is NOT a characteristic of the autotelic personality?

Need to achieve
Need for external feedback

Motivation[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Intrinsic motivation[edit | edit source]

Intrinsic motivation states that a person engages in an activity for the pure satisfaction and enjoyment derived from the activity itself (Stavrou, 2008), whereas extrinsic motivation is the tendency to engage in tasks for the expectation of reward or punishment (Moneta, 2004). Csikszentmihalyi (2000) argues that enjoyment is the key to intrinsic motivation as it provides an inner reward to promote task absorption, therefore,[grammar?] individuals are intrinsically motivated if the flow state is enjoyable (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). An intrinsically motivated person seeks more to challenge and stretch their capabilities to learn new things (Stavrou, 2008). Autotelic individuals are motivated by a need to achieve, therefore, the achievement motive is intrinsic (Baumann, 2011). This intrinsic component of the achievement motive is characterised by mastery and approach-oriented strivings (curiosity and interest in learning) to meet internal standards of excellence (Baumann, 2011).

Study by Mills and Fullagar (2008) on the relation between motivation and flow in architecture students
Mills and Fullagar (2008) investigated the relation between motivation and flow in a sample of 327 architecture students using an online survey. The results found that students who were studying architecture because of the pleasure and satisfaction they experienced while learning and exploring (intrinsic motivation to know) or while accomplishing something (intrinsic achievement motive) were more likely to be absorbed in their studies, compared to students who were not intrinsically motivated. The study also found no relation between extrinsic motivation and flow, suggesting external rewards do not assist in facilitating learning and engagement in students.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

Which of these is an example of intrinsic motivation?

"I go to work because I get paid"
"I will work hard on my essay so I do not fail"
"If I eat all my vegetables, I can have Icecream"
"I will read a book because I enjoy doing it"
"I will run every morning so my coach does not yell at me"

Degree of challenge[edit | edit source]

An autotelic individual recognises opportunities to build their skills and does so out of pure curiosity and the need to achieve (Baumann, 2012). For an autotelic individual to be actively engaged in a task, the task must be averaging[say what?] or slightly above their skill ability. Autotelic individuals seek to test their skills, therefore, if it is too easy they are less inclined to engage in the task (Baumann, 2012). Csikszentmihalyi emphasises that flow state is about balance and flow is experienced when both challenges and skills are high (Baumann, 2012). Autotelic people are driven by the teleonomy of the self, in which (a) if the level of perceived skills is less than the level of perceived challenges in a given task, then a person experiences anxiety and will try to attain balance by learning new skills that can be applied to the task; (b) if the level of perceived skills is less than the level of perceived challenges in a given task, then a person experiences boredom and will try to attain balance by making the task at hand more challenging or by engaging in a new and more challenging task (Moneta, 2004). In order to experience flow, there needs to be a balance between skill level and task ability. Massimini (1987) argued that the inability to experience flow results in feelings of apathy as a result of being in low-challenge or low-skill situations, which can be a risk factor for mental health problems.

There are cultural variations in degree of challenge and flow state. Moneta (2004) found that amongst a Chinese population sample, the highest level of state intrinsic motivation tends to be experienced in the low-challenge and high-skill condition. Amongst a U.S. sample, the highest level of state intrinsic motivation tends to be experienced in the high-challenge and high-skill condition (Moneta, 2004).

Psychological theory[edit | edit source]

The autotelic personality was derived from flow theory after Csikszentmihalyi discovered that some people were more frequently able to engage in flow state (Baumann, 2012). The autotelic personality is strongly linked with flow theory, with most studies exploring this relation (Ishimura & Kodama, 2009). Some studies have explored autotelic personality in regards to self-determination theory to understand what motives the autotelic individual (Moneta, 2004; Stavrou, 2008; Johnson, Keiser, Skarin & Ross, 2014). Both flow theory and self-determination theory are similar in that they both postulate personality differences in flow experience and highlight the significance of the need of competence in intrinsically motivated behaviour (Moneta, 2004).

Flow theory[edit | edit source]

Flow was coined by Hungarian-American Psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi, who described flow as a state of intrinsic motivation where a person is fully immersed in what he/she is doing for the sake of the activity (Baumann, 2012). The autotelic personality was derived from flow theory, believing that autotelic personalities position themselves in situations which enable frequent experiences of flow states (Baumann, 2012).

Csikzentmihalyi  identified nine characteristics of the flow state (Kowal & Fortier, 1999):

1.    The existence of a balance between the perceived skills of an individual and the perceived challenges of a situation

2.    A merging of action and awareness

3.    The presence of clear goals

4.    The presence of unambiguous feedback

5.    Concentration on the task at hand

6.    A sense of control over oneself and the environment

7.    A loss of self-consciousness

8.    A transformation of time

9.    The autotelic or enjoyable nature of the experience

Flow theory postulates that flow is more likely to occur during activities where the person feels the task is challenging and that they possess a high level of skill in facing those challenges (Moneta, 2004). There must be a balance between the skills of an individual and the challenge of a task (Baumann & Scheffer, 2011). If skills exceed challenges, people feel relaxed or bored and if challenges exceed skills, people feel aroused or anxious (Baumann & Scheffer, 2011). If an individual can experience flow in workplace or educational settings, they will concentrate on the task at hand, be more efficient as there is a transformation of time and the genuine interest of the task could promote growth and learning.

There are limitations with flow theory. Researchers have differing opinions about whether all elements associated with flow must be present and whether some of these are more important to the identification of flow (Emerson, 1998). Additionally, since collecting data would be disruptive to flow experience, descriptions are based on retrospective recall of the experience and may not be as accurate (Emerson, 1998).

Flow in internet use
Flow theory has been applied to a wide range of behaviours, as flow can occur in many everyday activities. An example of the occurrence of flow is in internet use. The internet provides access to a wide range of resources and people spend a lot of their time on it for work, school or leisure. Various studies have researched the interaction between flow and internet use, ranging from information technology such as Word (Pilke, 2004) to online shopping (Hsu, Chang & Chen, 2012) and online gaming (Chou & Ting, 2003). A study by Rettie (2001), aimed to find out whether internet users actually experience flow. The study had focus groups of individuals use the internet for one and a half hours, four separate times. The results found that half the respondents had experienced flow on the internet. Some respondents said they experienced flow but not on the internet. The study found that there are factors that inhibit internet flow, such as downloading time, advertisements and usage costs. However, multitasking and using several browser windows increases flow. Therefore, there are different factors in which may influence whether an individual experiences flow or not. By understanding what promotes flow and what hinders it, attention can be focused on getting students and employees to avoid those factors that hinder flow and amerce themselves in those that do. This could improve productivity and performance in school and workplace settings.

Self-determination theory[edit | edit source]

Self-determination theory claims that humans aim to fulfil three basic needs, in which initiate motivation:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Competence
  3. Relatedness (Stavrou, 2008)

Autonomy reflects a person’s need to feel that he/she owns the origins of one’s actions and behaviour, embracing in this way the concept of personal choice (Stavrou, 2008). The need for competence refers to an individual’s desire to interact effectively with his/her environment and experience the desired outcomes (Stavrou, 2008). Relatedness pertains to an individual need to feel connected with others, as well as experience a sense of belonging in a given social context (Stavrou, 2008).

According to the self-determination theory, activities that satisfy these needs foster intrinsic motivation (Moneta, 2004). Children who grow up in environments that provide challenges, support autonomy, competence feedback and a secure rational base to go back to develop a strong ‘autonomy orientation’ (Moneta, 2004). Autonomy orientation is a tendency to experience choice and freedom in activities, interpret the environment as informational and to seek out opportunities for autonomy (Moneta, 2004). Self-determination theory proposes that autonomy orientation then predisposes an individual to being intrinsically motivated, therefore, experiencing flow (Moneta, 2004). The satisfaction of the needs of competence and relatedness contributes to intrinsic motivation, only if the need of autonomy is sufficiently satisfied (Moneta, 2004).

Studies have shown that self-determined behaviour has a positive link with the flow experience (Stavrou, 2008). Perceived competence that an individual can complete a task is strongly reflective as to whether the individual will engage in a task (Stavrou, 2008). This supports Csikszentmihalyi’s assumption that there needs to be a balance between skill ability and task difficulty (Baumann, 2012). By understanding the three basic human needs, tasks that are given at work/school, can be framed in a way that promotes flow. For example, giving the individual a set of options in the task they perform (autonomy), match the task as only slightly above skill level so there is a challenge for the individual but not too difficult as to not believing they can complete it (competence) and adding a group aspect to the task such as peer feedback (relatedness). By appealing to the three needs, individuals will be more likely to fulfil these needs and therefore, complete the task.

Self-determination theory has been applied to the flow state and the autotelic personality in different research areas such as physical activity (Fortier & Kowal, 2007), gamification (Bruhlmann, Mekler & Opwis, 2013) and athlete burnout (Lonsdale, Hodge & Rose, 2009). Despite its practical implications, self-determination has limitations. Self-determination holds the assumption that all individuals have natural, innate, and constructive tendencies to develop an ever more elaborated and unified sense of self (Deci & Ryan, 2002). Therefore, self-determination theory does not take into account the irrationality of human behaviour.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

What are the three basic needs according to self-determination theory?

Autonomy, competence and relatedness
Relatedness, achievement and independence
Achievement, autonomy and competence
Independence, autonomy and relatedness
Autonomy, intimacy and achievement

Practical applications[edit | edit source]

Research on the autotelic personality has many practical applications pertaining to education, occupation and overall well-being. Students and workers can find it hard to concentrate and can lack the motivation to complete a task, which reduces performance and completion.Teachers can find it hard to provide tasks for students that are engaging and promote concentration, workers can lack motivation at work because they are disinterested in the task at hand, which can ultimately lead to dissatisfaction and diminished wellbeing.

Exercise 1

Reflect on a time at work or at school when you had no motivation to complete a task assigned to you. What was the activity? Did you find it interesting? How long did it take you to complete the task? How did you feel during and after the task?

Exercise 2

Reflect on a time at work or at school when you were motivated and engaged in a task. Were you interested in the task? Did you notice how long the task took? How did you feel during and after the task?

Now compare your answers to exercise 1. Whats[grammar?] the difference between your interest in exercise 1 compared to exercise 2, and how did this influence your motivation to learn and to engage? Were your feelings more positive in one scenario than the other? Why do you think this may be the case?

The purpose of the previous exercises are to highlight the issues of engagement, concentration, motivation and well-being in both education and workplace settings. The autotelic personality is motivated by interest in a task in which they engage and experience flow state, where time passes freely (Baumann, 2012). Positive feelings generally arise from flow state as the individual is intrinsically motivated to learn (Bassi, Steca, Monzani, Greco & Delle Face, 2014). By understanding the autotelic personality, teachers and employers can utilise what motivates the individual to create teaching methods that promote flow experience. This could increase engagement and concentration, consequently improving performance.

A study by Mills and Fullagar (2008) on the relation between motivation and flow in architecture students found that those who were intrinsically motivated and interested in their studies, were more likely to experience flow. By understanding what motivates students (interest), teaching methods can be applied in an effective way to ensure optimal learning. The study also found no relationship between external motivation and flow, suggesting rewarding or punishing students is not a successful teaching method.

Another study by Ishimura and Kodama (2009) on Japanese college students and the experience of flow in everyday activities showed that autotelic people regulated time better to ensure flow activities and direction toward goals to overcome the psychological constraints among everyday life activities. Students have a multitude of distractions ranging from technology to life events,[grammar?] it can be hard to get them to focus completely on the task at hand. By understanding the motivational drives of autotelic individuals, this research can be applied to educational settings to help improve time management, performance and goal direction.

The same findings can also be applied in an occupational setting as Csikszentmihalyi notes that flow is more often found in work behaviour than in leisure activities as there is an achievement flow motive in a work context (Baumann, 2011). An autotelic individual will seek flow in the achievement domain and create self-determination, work efficiency and experiences of being fully immersed across different tasks and situations (Baumann, 2011). Further research on the achievement motive which drives autotelic individuals could be beneficial in ensuring optimal performance in occupational settings.

Further research on the autotelic personality will not only benefit performance and learning in educational and occupational settings, but also the well-being of individuals. A study by Bassi and colleagues (2014), found that adolescents experiencing flow reported higher satisfaction with life, hedonic balance, and psychological well-being than their counterparts (Bassi et al., 2014). Overall, the autotelic personality has many practical applications.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The autotelic personality was introduced by Csikszentimihalyi[spelling?] to explain why some individuals experience flow more frequently than others. Autotelic individuals possess receptive qualities such as openness, engagement and persistence, pure curiosity and the need to achieve, enjoyment and persistence, openness to novelty and narrow concentration, integration and differentiation, independence and cooperation (Baumann, 2012). These qualities all include a degree of intrinsic motivation. Individuals who are curious will engage in a task for their own personal benefit or will strive to achieve in order to fulfil a personal goal. If individuals enjoy the task, they are intrinsically motivated to continue with the task and more likely to experience flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Autotelic individuals are motived[spelling?] by an achievement motive, which is why the degree of challenge of a task is particularly important. For an autotelic individual to be actively engaged in a task, the task has to be averaging or slightly above their skill ability (Baumann, 2012). Studies have found that there may be a cultural difference between skill ability and challenge of the task (Moneta, 2004). One of the main foundations of the autotelic personality is flow theory which is a state of intrinsic motivation where a person is fully immersed in what he/she is doing for the sake of the activity (Baumann, 2012). There are limitations with flow theory in which researchers have questioned whether all characteristics of flow must be present to experience flow. Additionally, data used in research on flow theory relies on retrospective recall (Emerson, 1998), which may not always be accurate. Self-determination theory is also prominently applied to research on the autotelic personality. Self-determination theory claims that humans aim to fulfil three basic needs; autonomy, competence and relatedness, which drive motivation (Stavrou, 2008). Self-determination theory proposes that autonomy orientation then predisposes an individual to being intrinsically motivated, therefore, experiencing flow (Moneta, 2004). Research on the autotelic personality has practical implications in education and occupation, as studies have shown intrinsic motivation and flow increases engagement and therefore, performance (Mills & Fullagar, 2008; Ishimura & Kodama, 2009). Studies have also found that experiencing flow can result in better overall well-being (Bassi, Steca, Monzani, Greco & Delle Fave, 2014). Future research should explore the autotelic personality further, assessing whether environmental or biological factors creates an autotelic personality. This would be beneficial as the findings can be applied in workplaces and schools to promote positive learning and growth.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bassi, M., Steca, P., Monzani, D., Greco, A., & Delle Fave, A. (2014). Personality and optimal experience in adolescence: Implications for well-being and development. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15(4), 829-843.

Baumann, N. (2012). Chapter 9: Autotelic personality. Retrieved from

Baumann, N.,& Scheffer, D. (2011). Seeking flow in the achievement domain: The achievement flow motive behind flow experience. Motivation and Emotion, 35(3), 267-284.

Brühlmann, F., Mekler, E., & Opwis, K. (2013). Gamification from the perspective of self-determination theory and flow. University of Basel.

Chou, T. J., & Ting, C. C. (2003). The role of flow experience in cyber-game addiction. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 6(6), 663-675.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow in work and play. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Csikszentmihalyi, M (2000) Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow in work and play.(2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic dialectical perspective. Handbook of self-determination research, 3-33.

Emerson, H. (1998). Flow and occupation: A review of the literature. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65, 37-44.

Fortier, M., & Kowal, J. (2007). The flow state and physical activity behavior change as motivational outcomes: A self-determination theory perspective.

Hsu, C. L., Chang, K. C., & Chen, M. C. (2012). Flow experience and internet shopping behavior: Investigating the moderating effect of consumer characteristics. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 29(3), 317-332.

Ishimura, I., & Kodama, M. (2009). Flow experiences in everyday activities of Japanese college students: Autotelic people and time management 1. Japanese Psychological Research, 51, 47–54.

Johnson, J., Keiser, H., Skarin, E., & Ross, S. (2014). The dispositional flow scale–2 as a measure of autotelic personality: An examination of criterion-related validity. Journal of Personality Assessment, 96(4), 465–470.

Kowal, J., & Fortier, M. (1999). Motivational determinants of flow: Contributions from self-determination theory. The Journal of Social Psychology, 139(3), 355–368.

Lonsdale, C., Hodge, K., & Rose, E. (2009). Athlete burnout in elite sport: A self-determination perspective. Journal of sports sciences, 27(8), 785-795.

Massimini, F., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Carli, M. (1987). The monitoring of optimal experience: A tool for psychiatric rehabilitation. Journal of Nervous and Mental disease.

Mills, M., & Fullagar, C. (2008). Motivation and flow: Toward an understanding of the dynamics of the relation in architecture students. The Journal of Psychology, 142(5), 533-556.

Moneta, G. (2004). The flow experience across cultures. Journal of Happiness Studies, 5(2), 115-121.

Moneta, G. (2004). The flow model of intrinsic motivation in chinese: Cultural and personal moderators. Journal of Happiness Studies, 5(2), 181-217.

Nazarbayev University Writers Guild (2018) why not curious? Retrieved from:

Pilke, E. (2004). Flow experiences in information technology use. International Journal of Human - Computer Studies, 61(3), 347-357.

Rettie, R. (2001). An exploration of flow during Internet use. Internet Research, 11(2), 103-113.

Stavrou. (2008). Intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation and amotivation: Examining self-determination theory from flow theory perspective. New developments in the psychology of motivation, 1-24.

Stefan, V. A. (2011). Thus spoke Einstein on life and living: Wisdom of Albert Einstein in the context. Stefan University Press.

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