Emotions and Motivations: an SDT perspective

I have blogged previously about personality and emotions and also personality and motivations, but haven’t made an explicit linkage between emotions and motivations; today I wish to rectify that and talk about how emotions and motivations are interconnected. I will be using the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of human motivation to make my case.

SDT consists of as many as six mini-theories; we will focus on OIT and BPNT for the purposes of this post.

Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) posits that people act due to a variety of reasons. Some of these are intrinsic reasons (the activity/ task feels fun, pleasurable, energizing) while other are extrinsic reasons (someone asks us to do it, we do it to gain rewards/ avoid punishments). When someone is intrinsically motivated, they feel more autonomously regulated or in other words they feel more in control of the choices they make and activities they do and endorse these actions as emanating from the self. However, when one is extrinsically motivated they feel controlled in their choices and activities and may attribute their actions to the rewards/ punishment contingencies under which they are working.

People indulge in all types of activities, only a small part of which is for intrinsic reasons such as the activity being fun and interesting. We need to work, to pay the bills, and though the activity is performed primarily to gain external rewards (pay), the reasons for the same can be internalized to various extent. OIT posits that the more integrated to self and internalized we make the reasons for doing an activity that is primarily or initially driven by external regulation, the more autonomous the regulation will become and less controlled it will feel.

For e.g., I may do my work properly due to fear of loss of job or expectation of a pay hike and my motivation is external and I am externally regulated. This type of motivation is the most controlled. I may also do my work properly because I feel guilty on doing a shoddy job and displeasing my supervisor- here I have internalized the motive as emanating from within- feelings of guilt- and hence this will feel less controlled and more autonomous than external regulation. This is introjected regulation. I may also do my work properly because I think that’s the right thing to do, maybe to support my family – I identify with and accept that part of my life. Thus my motivation for work would be Identified motivation and will feel even more autonomous. Finally, I may do my work properly because I am a conscientious/ honest person and this fits in with my notion of who I am- I can identify with this motivation/ reason and integrate with my self concept. This form of Integrated motivation is the most autonomous of all, barring intrinsic motivation, which feels the most autonomous, because you don’t need to internalize any external reasons.

Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) on the other hand claims that all humans have three basic psychological needs- the need for autonomy ( being able to be volitional and endorse ones actions), the need for competence (being able to be effective at a task) and need for relatedness (being able to belong and have intimate, satisfying connections with others). When these needs are satisfied, a person thrives and works on optimal level, when these needs are thwarted a person languishes and may have ill-being.

There is some interaction between OIT and BPNT. The more a person acts from autonomous motivations (feeling free and volitional), rather than controlled motivations (feeling pressured and compelled) the more his or her basic needs will be satisfied and thus the more happier and well-functioning he/she will be.

The above was the standard SDT formulations; I want to propose some changes/ modification to the same. To start with, as many others have proposed, I want to propose a new basic psychological need- the need for meaning. This need consists of both the need to find meaning and to lead a meaningful life- the need for both coherence and contribution in one’s life. Thus one would be driven by a need for comprehending the world and find in some inherent meaning in it; one would also be driven to add meaning to that world by being generative and making an impact. Just like other needs, the satisfaction of this need for meaning will lead to positive well-being, while frustration of this need will lead to ill-being.

The second change I want to propose is that just like extrinsic motivation is split into four types- External, Introjected, Identified, and Integrated, based on how autonomous/ controlled it is , we also differentiate between different types of intrinsic motivations- Intrinsic motivation driven by competence, Intrinsic motivation driven by meaning, Intrinsic motivation driven by relatedness and finally Intrinsic motivation driven by autonomy. I believe, and this is an empirical question, that even Intrinsic motivations of the four types will differ in the amount/ quality of autonomous regulation.

Now, that we have laid the groundwork, let me go straight to the main thesis of this post viz that emotions and motivations are connected in a very systematic manner. To illustrate my point, I will be using my eight basic emotions theory. To recall, the basic emotions are Fear, Disgust/guilt, Anger, Sadness, Interest/ courage, Wonder, Love and Joy. These emotions come in opposing pairs- Fear/ Interest, Disgust/ Wonder, Anger/ Love and Sadness/Joy. My thesis is that the motivations too come in pairs- External/ Intrinsic with competence; Introjected/ Intrinsic with meaning; Identified/Intrinsic with relatedness; and finally Integrated/ Intrinsic with autonomy. Also these motivation pairs correspond to the emotion pairs in the same order.

Lets start with External regulation. The threat of punishment is one mechanism that is active here, resulting plausibly in an emotion of Fear. Also when competence need, which is associated with this motivation pair is frustrated, then one is likely to feel incompetent and thereby suffer from anxiety based psychopathology , which is associated with emotion of Fear.

Consider on the other hand Intrinsic motivation with Competence. The exploratory drive or opportunity within challenge, is one mechanism active here, resulting plausibly in the emotion of Interest / courage. Also when competence, which is associated with this motivation pair, becomes a focal concern to the exclusion of balance with other needs, then one falls victim to obsessive passion and is thereby may even suffer from obsession and compulsions related psychopathology which is associated with emotion of Interest.

Next consider Introjected regulation. The incomplete internationalization is typically engendered via feelings of Guilt etc. Also when meaning need, associated with this motivation pair, is frustrated, one is likely to feel insignificant/ disillusioned and thereby suffer from addiction/ substance use based psychopathology, which is associated with emotion of guilt/ disgust.

On the other hand, Intrinsic motivation with Meaning leads to curiosity and sense of Wonder. When meaning need associated with this takes over to the exclusion of other needs one consequence could be dissociation based psychopathology associated with emotions of wonder.

Consider next Identified regulation– here at times there is compartmentalizing of self leading to frustration and Anger. When relatedness need , which is related to this particular pair, is frustrated it results in feelings of alienation leading to psychopathology associated with hostility, which is associated with the emotion of anger.

Intrinsic motivation with relatedness on the other hand leads to feelings of belonging and Love. When this need is focused on exclusively however, this may lead to excessive valuing of ingroups and prejudice towards outgroups.

Integrated regulation, where one’s self is in alignment and yet one is controlled and not fully autonomous, may lead to feelings of loss and Sadness. When autonomy need associated with this is frustrated, it results in feelings of being controlled and may result in depressive psychopathology, itself associated with sadness.

Finally, Intrinsic motivation with autonomy, leads to feelings of fun, play and Joy. When this need for autonomy becomes a predominant need however to exclusion of others one may get so charged up and free wheeling as to become manic, a pathology associated with emotion of joy.

I have delineated above based on strong theoretical grounds. There is some empirical support too, but more work needs to happen. This recent study for eg shows that negative emotions like fear and anger lead to loss in feelings of agency. I know that agency is not the same as controlled vs autonomous regulation, but the findings are tantalizing.

To me the emotion pair, motivation pair linkage makes perfect sense. Do let me know if you are aware of any research studies exploring on similar lines?

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