Self Administered Associations in Conjecture Formation.

Edward Deci


Everything we are, everything we do, especially learning, comes down to motivation. Motivation is why we are, why we do, and why we learn. Humans have always speculated as to why they do things. Are we forced to do things in order to gain relief from internal goads called drives? Are our actions reinforced by being accompanied by pleasurable stimuli? Does our motivation come from our external environment or does it come from inside of us? These are the questions that must be answered if we are to learn why we act.

The wrong path. 

Here is a thing to know about humans. We want to control our environment, and that means controlling other people, but we really hate to be controlled ourselves. For a long while people and science have been going down the wrong path. We have been trying to find out how to motivate others instead of trying to find out how to motivate ourselves. It's the wrong path for many reasons, but primarily because those who allow themselves to be controlled are useless as human beings. Such people are not creative. They have to be told what to do. A truly controlled person has no independent thought or action. A controlled person is really a logical paradox because he is no longer human. What we end up with is partly controlled, partly independent, partly resistant, partly compliant being. This is a volatile being of revolution and the cause of much social strife.

Mislead by common sense. 

Until very recently it was never questioned if we could or should try to control others. It was assumed that if we rewarded people for doing something that they would be likely to continue doing that thing and that thus we could control their actions. The behaviorists tried to make a science out of this and it is hard to fault them in such, because everybody thought that this was self evident.

Common sense failed the test. 

In 1961 graduate student Louise Brightwell Miller conducted a discrimination experiment where nine-year-old boys were split into two groups one group of which was offered money if they succeeded in telling two faces flashed on a screen apart and the other group was not offered money. Surprisingly the children who were not offered money did much better at the discrimination.

The following year another graduate student Sam Glucksberg conducted an experiment where two groups of graduate students were asked to work out how to mount a candle on a wall with limited available resources. Again the students in one group were offered varying amounts of money if they succeeded while the students in the other group were not offered payment. Again the students who were offered payment did more poorly than those who were not offered payment.

These two graduate students had stumbled on something that nobody before had previously thought to do, and that was actually check if rewards actually improved performance. Behaviorists assumed that rewards improved performance, and because it seemed like common sense, nobody had bothered to check.

The right path.

In the 1970s experiments along these lines were coming thick and fast. The new experiments confirmed the previous experiments and showed that they were not flukes. The whole idea of getting people to do what others want them to was being brought into question. Although it seems so obvious, as to not need saying, people do not want to be the pawns of others. This is not just in cases where they are ill treated but also where they live in the greatest comfort. If you are not your own man what are you? Do you have any worth or meaning? Or are you just cannon fodder for the masters? It is true that some leaders can, through some great purpose get people to do what they want them to do and make them like it, but they do this by bringing people such a convincing message that they want to follow the leader and do what he asks. He somehow shapes a message or the environment in such a way that people motivate themselves. Why would people want to do things others want them to do? Well that is certainly the big question. To find the answer we need to divide motivation into that which has its causal locus outside of us (extrinsic motivation) and that which has its causal locus inside of us (intrinsic motivation). Having discovered that extrinsic motivation does not work very well, social psychologists turned to investigating intrinsic motivation. How people motivate themselves to cooperate with others, is explained in the section on Self-determination and the research by Deci and Ryan.

Intrinsic rewards and extrinsic rewards. 

All rewards strictly speaking are intrinsic rewards. They derive from our bodily needs. Obviously, we reward ourselves when we succeed in satisfying our needs, and this means satisfying all the needs in Maslow's hierarchy. Most needs are what Maslow described as deficiency needs. Deficiency needs are all those needs in Maslow's hierarchy that are dependent to some extent or other on something external to ourselves. These needs include physiological needs, safety needs, love needs and esteem needs. Because these needs are dependent on substances and and others external to ourselves, they can be be used as extrinsic rewards. Thus they can be exploited by others to intentionally try to control our actions in the form of extrinsic rewards.

Physiological needs such as hunger, thirst, sex, shelter, require something back from the environment to be satisfied and thus the satisfaction of them can be used as extrinsic rewards. Likewise safety, security, love, friendship, belonging, and esteem all require some response from the environment so that the satisfaction of them can be used that can be used as extrinsic rewards.

Self satisfaction and intrinsic rewards. 

If however, we manage to satisfy our own deficiency needs without the intervention of others, it can be said that we are rewarded by being self fulfilled. The actual satisfaction of these needs, if we can accomplish them through our own efforts, provide us thus, with intrinsic rewards. The satisfaction of such needs produce chemicals that flood our bodies and brains that produce the intrinsic rewards by activating the pleasure centers of our brains. When we enable ourselves to feel safe or secure our bodies and minds are flooded with pleasure, when we make friends, are accepted into groups, or we are loved, again our bodies and brains are flooded with pleasure. When we earn honor or otherwise earn the esteem of others our bodies and brains are likewise are flooded with pleasure.

As of this moment we do not have a complete understanding of how and when the pleasure centers of the the brain are activated. Perhaps in some cases the needs, such as such as that of the safety need, satisfaction is more of a relief from the anxiety of being unsafe. Or then again it is possible that the pleasure centers of the brain are stimulated in this way when we feel accepted, when we are loved, when we are honored, when we are held in high esteem and when we feel we are safe from danger. The point is we receive an intrinsic reward of some sort whenever we satisfy a need.  

"The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Constructs that can only provide intrinsically pleasurable sensations. 

There is another set of circumstances when we are rewarded by our bodies and brains. These circumstances are caused by the satisfaction of yet another series of needs. Maslow called these needs, being needs, aesthetic needs or meta needs. These meta needs require no response from the environment and it is said of them, that the pleasure gained from them, is in the satisfaction of them. The rewards from them are always intrinsic. It is difficult to imagine how they could be given as an extrinsic reward from others. Our bodies and minds automatically reward us when we satisfy these meta needs, when we do things that we believe have value:

  1. Goodness. When we try to do something good and succeed in doing it.
  2. Uniqueness. When we try to do something unique and succeed in doing it.
  3. Perfection. When we try to do something perfect and succeed or nearly succeed in doing it.
  4. Necessity. When we try to do something necessary and succeed in doing it.
  5. Justice. When we try to bring about something just and succeed in doing it.
  6. Simplification. When we try to simplify something and succeed in doing it.
  7. Truthfulness. When we try to find out the truth of something and succeed in doing it.
  8. Richness. When we try to find the wonder and intricacy of something and succeed in doing it.
  9. Wholeness. When we try to integrate something into a unity and succeed in doing it.
  10. Completion. When we try to finish or close off something and succeed in doing it.
  11. Usefulness When we try to do something useful and succeed in doing it.
  12. Accomplishment. When we try to accomplish something and succeed in accomplishing it.
  13. Achievement. When we set goals for ourselves and succeed in achieving them.
  14. Orderliness. When we try to combine things to forge order out of chaos and succeed at it.
  15. Creativity. When we try to create something and succeed in creating it.
  16. Productivity. When we try to be productive and succeed in being productive.
  17. Competence. When we try to and succeed in increasing our abilities.
  18. Skillfulness. When we try to improve some skill and succeed in doing so.
  19. Mastery. When we try to master some skill or task and succeed in doing it.
  20. Efficiency When we try to and succeed in avoiding the waste of time, energy and material.
  21. Worth. When we try to do something we consider worthwhile or worthy and succeed in doing so.
  22. Self-Actualization. When we try to actualize some of our potential and succeed in doing so.
  23. Learning. When we try to learn something personally interesting and we succeed in learning it.

Success as motivation. 

Clearly it is our ability to succeed at any endeavor that is mostly responsible for our motivation. Success is therefore not desirable for its own sake, but rather for its ability to move us forward. Success is desirable for its ability to allow us to feel engaged. Success is desirable for its ability to enable us to feel all 23 of the values, just previously mentioned, within ourselves. Success is desirable for its ability to enable us to take risks. Success is desirable for its ability to enable us to overcome failure and proceed anyway.

Interest as motivation. 

Likewise, intrinsic motivation is all about interest. Whatever it is we are trying to do, whether it is to accomplish something, achieve some goal, to become more skillful, to create something, to actualize one of our potentials, or especially to learn something we will be unable to do it unless we are interested in doing it. Of course interest is partly a function of success, in that we become interested in what we are successful at. But interest is also partly building on what we already know and in this it is closely bound to learning. That is to say we become interested in learning about that which is similar to what we know and understand, that which we feel will make our model of reality more accurate.

Fear and motivation. 

If we try and fail in any endeavor we may feel some feeling of unpleasantness or pain although this does not seem to be intrinsic. It is rather a learned feeling that comes from the building of unpleasant associations with the act of failing over time. If you are able to watch babies or young persons when they try and do not succeed, you will discover that they are not phased in any way, and immediately try and try again until they succeed. We must ask therefore do babies need to learn to be afraid of failure? Sure they need to learn to be afraid of some things, but being afraid of failure causes motivation to evaporate. John Holt in his book "How Children Fail" made this lack of fear of failure in babies abundantly clear.

"These quiet summer days I spend many hours watching this baby. What comes across most vividly is that she is a kind of scientist. She is always observing and experimenting. She is hardly ever idle. Most of her waking time she is intensely and purposefully active, soaking up experience and trying to make sense out of it, trying to find out how things around her behave, and trying to make them behave as she wants them to.

In the face of what looks like unbroken failure she is so persistent. Most of her experiments, her efforts to predict and control her environment, don't work. But she goes right on, not the least daunted. Perhaps this is because there are no penalties attached to failure, except nature's - usually if you try to step on a ball you fall down. A baby does not react to failure as an adult does, or even a five-year-old, because she has not yet been made to feel that failure is shame, disgrace, a crime. Unlike her elders, she is not concerned with protecting herself against everything that is not easy or familiar; she reaches out to experience, she embraces life."

Intrinsic reinforcement. 

It may seem a little unusual, but intrinsic motivation can be understood in terms of behaviorist theory. The behaviorists have ignored the fact that our bodies and minds reward us just as surely as we are subject to external rewards. They ignore the idea that the rewards that others can try to use to motivate us are some of the same ones with which we motivate ourselves. For instance we do not need to be conditioned to eat food, it is intrinsically rewarding. If we did find a food distasteful, however, it would not be rewarding and could not be used to motivate us. But then again if we do not like a particular type of food we could be conditioned to like it perhaps by following it with something we do like. In other words what constitutes a behavior and what is considered reinforcement can vary from organism to organism and this is most evident in humans. Reinforcement or rewards, that are intrinsic in humans, are thus understood in terms of behaviorist theories and this should be considered when analyzing the effects of external rewards and punishments.

A behaviorist outlook on intrinsic associations in learning.

Though internal rewards are only one factor in motivation, they are now considered to be the most important. Intrinsic motivation is far more effective and reliable because it is always acting. Despite this, external rewards must also be factored into any attempt to understand motivation. It has also been discovered in experiments by Deci, Ryan and others that the most important factor governing the effectiveness of extern rewards, is whether those extrinsic rewards are intentionally instituted by some other person. This is especially so, if it is applied in order to control us. Unintentional, (usually accidental) or random pleasures (rewards) that may cause us to think, that they will accompany some item of learning, tend to conjure up far less resistance and do not reduce intrinsic motivation.

The development of pleasure associated with learning. 

The pleasure associated with learning may itself be learned, or it may be intrinsic in the act of learning, or both pleasures may exist in harmony.

  1. When learning, we can and usually do so, in association with some pleasurable experience.

  2. This pleasurable experience may come from the act of learning itself or from any other intrinsic or extrinsic pleasure.

  3. When this happens we undoubtedly form a conjecture, that we will experience some sensory or other pleasure or satisfaction while in the process of learning that particular item of knowledge.

  4. Thus it can be said we come to expect or anticipate that such learning is accompanied by or followed by pleasure.

  5. As explained previously this is because, learning triggers a number of internal intrinsic reward mechanisms. Firstly learning itself probably produces an intrinsic reward. Either the learning produces the reward or it triggers a mechanism in the mind or body for creating pleasure.

  6. If the learning is concerned with the success of goodness, uniqueness, perfection, justice, simplification, truthfulness, richness, wholeness, completion, necessity, usefulness, accomplishment, achievement, orderliness, creativity, productivity, competence, skillfulness, mastery, worth or the actualization of the self, a further amount of pleasure is produced or administered by triggered intrinsic reward mechanisms.

  7. A single experience of these self administered rewards, is sufficient to enable the formation of a conjecture that pleasure will accompany or follow the item of learning.

  8. This is a self fulfilling prophesy, as some pleasure will always accompany learning unless some associations with displeasure have been built up.

  9. The more pleasure actually does accompany learning, the more we generalize this conjecture to other similar items of learning.

  10. This creates an anticipation, that similar items of learning will also bring this internally generated pleasure and thus a desire to learn those similar items.

  11. It seems likely, that ultimately we could form a conjecture, that any kind of learning will be accompanied by or followed by pleasure.

  12. It seems almost self evident that the pleasure of learning should develop and increase in this way. However, if we begin to feel that we are being controlled forced to do something our conjectures about the pleasure intrinsic in learning will falter as extrinsic motivation competes with it. Instead, as we perceive ourselves being motivated by the extrinsic motivation our brains assume the intrinsic motivation is unimportant. This in turn reduces our ability to experience intrinsic motivation and causes it to diminish more and more as time passes.

As conjectures go, those concerning intrinsic pleasures are more reliable and consistent than conjectures concerning extrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards may be, and often are, counter productive for the very reason that they originate outside, and are thus dependent for their existence on the external environment. When a reward is not forth coming, as is the case with many extrinsic rewards after a while, not only does the reward stop, but possibly the lack of reward is experienced as a kind of punishment, causing the formation of conjectures that learning will be accompanied by or followed by this punishment. There is now considerable evidence to suggest that intrinsic motivation not only motivates us better than contrived or extrinsic contingencies, but is actually must be central in any  real motivation affecting us positively. Indeed, there is much experimental evidence to not only show that extrinsic reward will be demotivating if experienced as being controlling or if the reward is withdrawn, but that it will actually damage our ability to rebuild intrinsic motivation. As may be imagined, this can lead to a gradual lowering of overall motivation and thus a gradual lowering of interest and a general decrease in learning as people proceed in their lives.

John W. Gardener American educator said. "One of the reasons mature people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure."

A new theory on the dynamics of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.  

Edward Deci, Richard Ryan and their colleagues, have been studying the interrelationship and dynamics of extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. From this study they have derived and generated a general theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory or STD. Here is a breakdown of the theory as it appears in "The Handbook of Self-determination Research":

"The primary agenda of self-determination theory...has been to provide an account of the seemingly discrepant viewpoints characterized, on the one hand by humanistic, psychoanalytic, and developmental theories that employ an organismic metatheory and, on the other hand by behavioral, cognitive and post modern theories that do not. In other words, recognizing that there is compelling evidence in favor of human tendencies toward active engagement and development and that there is as well, manifold indication of fragmentation and conditioned responses. SDT provides a framework that integrates the phenomena illuminated by these discrepant viewpoints.

SDT begins by embracing the assumption that all individuals have natural, innate and constructive tendencies to develop an ever more elaborated and unified sense of self. That is we assume that people have a primary propensity to forge interconnections among aspects of their own psyches as well as with other individuals and groups in their social worlds. Drawing on the terms used by Angyal (1963) we characterize this tendency toward integration as involving both autonomy (tending toward inner organization and holistic self regulation) and homonomy (tending toward integration of oneself with others). Healthy development involves the complementary functioning of these two aspects of the integrative tendency."

For Deci and Ryan the reason why we do things (our motivation), comes down to the manner in which intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation influence each other, and how our perception of the motivation of others influences these two types of motivation. SDT was generated out of a series of experiments which initially seemed to show that any attempt to influence others to be active, (in other words to extrinsically motivate them) would result in a decrease in intrinsic motivation, and thus seemed to preclude the learning of anything that was not personally interesting.

However, further experiments brought to light the fact that it was not the presence of extrinsic motivation that was causing intrinsic motivation to fall, but rather each person's perception of the other persons motives. It was more likely, for instance, that intrinsic motivation would fall in situations where there were clear signs of other people wanting you to act in a particular way. Where others were trying to motivate you to learn, (such as in school for instance) there would be usually fairly clear signs of extrinsic motivators, such as rewards if you do and punishments if you do not. In this case, intrinsic motivation would tend to fall. But in situations outside school, the same lesson (such as in the cartoon of Calvin and Hobbes below), might be very attractive because intrinsic motivation would remain high. 

Deci and Ryan postulated that this interrelation between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation was caused by the presence of three basic needs, which through their action could explain all the dispirit phenomenon. They postulated a need to be self-determined, a need to be competent, and a need to be related to others.


A need for self-determination or autonomy explained both, why there was a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and why the person tended to become more integrated. Firstly, extrinsic motivation was motivation that did not satisfy the need for self-determination. Secondly, the person tended to become more integrated, because a fragmented self likewise did not satisfy the need for self determination. (How could the self be determined, if it was fragmented into non connected or conflicting pieces.)


A need for competence explained both, why people need to internalize external regulations, and why people were motivated to do things at all. People need to internalize certain agreed upon ways of acting in groups of others i.e. society, because that was the way they could satisfy their need for social competence. People needed to learn how to do things so they could satisfy their need for competence.


A need for relatedness explained both, why people need to gather into groups, and why regulations needed to be internalized. People need to gather into groups because that is how they are able to satisfy their need for relatedness. People need to internalize customs, rules for interaction and generally what is expected, because if they do not, groups will be fractured and fragmented and thus not really groups at all.

Why does intrinsic motivation fall in the presence of extrinsic motivation? 

Intrinsic motivation within this theory occurs when both the need for competence and the need for self-determination are satisfied, but is also stronger, when the need for relatedness is also satisfied. The perceived presence of extrinsic motivation usually prevents these three needs being satisfied. For more information about self-determination theory click here.

Flow State Theory

What is intrinsic pleasure? 

It has been inferred in some of the psychology literature, that what is referred to as intrinsic pleasure, may not really be intrinsic at all, but rather a learned psychological state that any person can attain for any activity. If the pleasure attained by the entering of this mental state is what is being measured, and not some property innate in the activity itself, this would cause a host of problems for researchers working in this field. Interestingly it would also provide some solutions to difficulties within some of the theories, such as that of SDT.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book "Flow", presents some interesting evidence for this idea of a pleasurable mental state which he called flow. Strictly speaking, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was not interested in intrinsic motivation as such. His position is, that life is not about being motivated, but rather about attaining an this optimal state of being or flow state. In terms of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's view we perform activities not in order to get things done, but instead in order to attain a state of flow and the things are gotten done as a sort of side effect of that.

The research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was conducted in two ways. First, masses of people, in all walks of life, were asked to respond by reporting the kinds of activities they found pleasurable. Second a sample of people, in all walks of life, took part in an experiment where they were beeped randomly as the continued their daily lives. When beeped, they would  write down what they were doing and how they were feeling at that moment, in a sort of diary. This information was then synthesized to see what patterns emerged. Many of the findings turned out to be as expected, but the biggest anti intuitive finding was that people in general did not find a lot of pleasure in leisure activities, but did find a considerable amount of pleasure in working.

The really high pleasure, people described, corresponded to a state of mind where the person was challenged in some way, and was competently able to rise to and cope with that challenge. Perhaps not so strangely, this tended to happen much more when the person was working. But curiously, did not happen much when they were relaxing or playing. As far as the idea that activities might not have innate properties such as being pleasurable or unpleasant Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had little to say. Indeed most of the activities that were reported as being pleasurable, were ones that could be easily understood as being intrinsically pleasurable, such as those that involved creativity.

Some people however, especially those who had lived and worked in simpler communities often reported finding the most pleasure in performing the simple everyday tasks such as milking, that others of our present society might think of as drudgery. One person who was well integrated in our present culture, was singled out for a special mention by Csikszentmihalyi. He was singled out because, while his work was simple, (originally a welder) and what might be considered by most of current society as unpleasant, he had transformed it into a symphony of creativity. His name was Joe and his story is presented below as depicted in "Flow":

"Although he stood on the lowest rung of the hierarchy in the plant, everyone knew Joe, and everyone agreed that that he was the most important person in the entire factory. The manager stated that if he had five more people like Joe, his plant would be the most efficient in the business. His fellow workers said that without Joe they might as well shut down the shop right now.

The reason for his fame was simple. Joe had apparently mastered every phase of the plant's operation, and he was now able to take anyone's place if the necessity arose. Moreover, he could fix any broken down piece of machinery, ranging from huge mechanical cranes to tiny electronic monitors. But what astounded people most was that Joe not only could perform these tasks, but actually enjoyed it when he was called upon to do them.

[even so] ...Joe has never been a workaholic, completely dependent on the challenges of the factory to feel good about himself. What he did at home was perhaps even more remarkable than his transformation of a mindless, routine job into a complex, flow producing activity.

...The quality of experience of people who play with and transform the opportunities in their surroundings, as Joe did, is clearly more developed as well as more enjoyable than that of other people who resign themselves to live within the constraints of the barren reality they feel they cannot alter." 

Did Joe manage to take activities that others would find a drudge, and turn them into something that was pleasurable to him? Is it possible that rural workers might achieve the same state of ecstasy as a great artist or scientist? What about people who climb mountains? Climbing a mountain of any worth involves suffering the worst kind of adversity. Most of us would say, "Why would anyone in their right mind want to climb a mountain." Yet those who do so say, "There is no other pleasure like it." They say, "To pit yourself against the elements, to overcome the forces of nature, is to be as one with the gods."  Do they do it just for the pleasure of succeeding, or the fame it brings, or is there some pleasure just in the doing of it?

What if such pleasure is not innate in the activities? 

Why is it that one person can enjoy himself while waiting for the bus, while another cannot be entertained no matter what is available to him? One person takes what is available to him through his senses, and turns it into an enjoyable experience, the other cannot modify his experience at all, and so is continually distracted. He is distracted by a few unpleasant elements, that lie normally buried in any reasonably large amount of sensory information. This is not merely an optimist perceiving what is not there, but rather the perceiving of something pleasurable that is there because that is what is being perceived. It has just as much claim to validity or truth as any other claim. We can only know things through what we perceive.

If intrinsic pleasure is not actually intrinsic, it may in fact be possible for it to be learned. In other words, no task, no activity, may be unpleasant in itself. It may be that we learn that certain tasks are unpleasant or pleasant, by watching others perform those tasks and inferring its pleasure or displeasure from cues in their performance. It would mean that tasks and activities are what we perceive them to be, that they are what we understand them to be, and what we believe them to be. It would mean that the pleasure or displeasure of doing something is just a state of mind, which we should be able to adjust.

Intrinsic motivation is motivation for life.

Edward Deci poses us the question, "How can I create the conditions within which people will motivate themselves?" This question seeks to to resolve the problem that others always want learners to learn what they think is best for them, while learning is only accomplished at all if the learner wants to learn. Why do we not want people to learn in order to gain some prize dangled by others? There are many reasons, but the most important reason is that any kind of extrinsic motivation is only temporary. The moment some prize offered by others is withdrawn, not only is the extrinsic motivation to learn gone with it, but the genuine intrinsic joy they previously felt when learning is likewise extinguished. In his book "Why We Do What We Do" Edward Deci shows that motivating any creature poses the same problem, even seals:

" can get a glimpse of the problem even with the seals. Just as soon as the feeders disappear, so too do the entertaining behaviors. The seals no longer have interest in clapping their flippers together or waving to the crowd. Rewards may increase the likelihood of behaviors, but only so long as the rewards keep coming.

With our children, students and employees we typically hope that the desired behaviors will continue even if we are not there to toss them a fish."

Essentially what we want is for our children to fall in love with learning, and so much so, that they will continue to learn deeply and enthusiastically throughout their lives. When people have learned because they were motivated by their own internal needs and interests, when they have been intrinsically motivated to learn, they will remain so motivated and become life long learners. Such motivation is deeply embedded in the person's approach to life. If people spend their childhood being intrinsically motivated to learn they will never lose that motivation to learn. The desire to continue to learn by delving deeply into subjects throughout our entire lives will become part of what that person is.

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