Autonomous motivation (i.e. motivation emanating from within the self) brings about positive outcomes such as enhanced performance, skill development, attendance and long-term retention, and psychological well-being (Baard et al., 2004; Gagné & Deci, 2005; Gagné et al., 2000). Scientific literature strongly indicates that autonomous motivation is enhanced by providing support for experiencing a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy concerns a sense of initiative and ownership in one’s actions (Ryan & Deci, 2020), and can be supported by: relying on non-controlling language, avoiding or proactively addressing controlling factors (e.g., rewards, external pressures, expectations), nurturing inner motivational resources, practicing mindfulness, and aiding with introspective self-reflection in teams or 1-1 conversations. Competence concerns the feeling of mastery, success and growth (Ryan & Deci, 2020), and is among others supported by: relying on informational language, and constructively questioning someone’s approach. Finally, relatedness concerns a sense of belonging and connection (Ryan & Deci, 2020) and might be supported by behaviors that demonstrate ongoing and authentic interest, care, and fellowship within the group, such as active listening, perspective talking, mentoring, and opportunities to develop relations with others (Van den Broeck et al. 2016). Failing to support one of these is seen as detrimental to motivation and wellness (Ryan & Deci, 2020).

If you do not want theoretical context, but a tangible overview of interventions, skip to the section curated to “Interventions to Support Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness”. 

Motivation Behind this Post

The EA community appears to place a lot of importance on people who are particularly highly engaged (HEAs) - understandably so assuming that the degree of impact spread among individuals is heavy-tail distributed. In my experience, we succeed at helping people identify how to increase their expected impact, but we sometimes struggle motivating and engaging people to take action. We have all been thinking "I should exercise more, sleep better, eat healthier" and maybe "I should do more EA stuff", but for many, figuring out what to do is the easy part, actually doing it is the hard part. Great leaders and community builders are able to build environments that catalyze action from rationale. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) stands out to me as the most accurate and widely applicable theory of motivation for that purpose. Well grounded in empirical studies, this theory states that we are more autonomously motivated when our basic psychological needs - autonomy, competence and relatedness - are satisfied. This post aims to provide leaders and community builders with an understanding of what feeds into autonomous motivation, and an overview of interventions to incubate self-driven individuals.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

Defined by the authors of SDT, Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci (2020):

As an organismic theory, SDT assumes people are inherently prone toward psychological growth and integration, and thus toward learning, mastery and connection with others. However, these proactive human tendencies are not seen as automatic—they require supportive conditions to be robust. SDT specifically argues that for healthy development to unfold individuals require support for basic psychological needs (Ryan, Ryan, Di Domenico, & Deci, 2019). 

Autonomous motivation is undermined by experiences of being externally controlled, whether by tangible expected rewards (e.g. prize, grades), controlling language (e.g. use of "should" or "have to") or punishment (Deci et al., 2001; Ryan & Deci, 2020). This can be particularly detrimental for a movement like EA which greatly benefits from self-driven individuals. Autonomous motivation is however not undermined when individuals feel personally endorsed with the value of the external factor (identified regulation), or when they have internalized the external factors as complying with their own core values (integrated regulation). This process is referred to as internalization (Ryan & Deci, 2020). An EA related example of internalized external controlling factors is self-imposed accountability structures that provide social pressure to perform certain actions or to complete certain tasks.

Less optimal forms of motivation originate when people have a sense of obligation to perform an action because of internal pressures such as guilt or anxiety (introjected regulation), or when people feel controlled to perform an action due to contingent external rewards or punishment (external regulation). Satisfying the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness is known to reduce introjected and external regulation (controlled motivations), and to enhance identified and integrated regulation (autonomous motivations). (Ryan & Deci, 2020)

Now that we know what feeds into autonomous motivation, let us look at what intervention studies teach us about applying SDT in organizations. 

Interventions to Support Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness

While the effect of Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction (BPNS) on autonomous motivation is well documented, the effectiveness of interventions designed to promote BPNS in organizations is ill documented (Slemp et al., 2021). Out of three randomized controlled trials and seven non-randomized intervention studies (combined N = 2,337), seven studies yielded mostly favorable effects, two yielded mixed effects, and one study showed no evidence of change post-intervention (Slemp et al., 2021). Keeping this in mind, the following interventions are recommended as they have been identified to significantly increase BPNS:

Diagram showing the relations between interventions (left column), basic psychological need satisfaction (middle column), autonomous motivation, and positive work-related outcomes (right column). 

Proactively address factors that can be experienced as controlling such that they can either be avoided or well internalized among members (Slemp et al., 2021). Examples of such factors are social pressures (e.g., should do good at school, should donate more to effective charities), expectations, rewards, controlling praise (e.g., “Well done, keep doing that!”), punishment, and external pressures (e.g., exams, loans, grants). 

Introspective 1-1 conversations aiding self-reflection, and questioning of their approach, which could build competence and is known to aid the internalization process (Ryan & Deci, 2004).

Facilitate internalization in team settings by prompting communication, reflection and discussions around statements such as "I stand behind decisions made and take full responsibility for them", "I concentrate more on solutions than on problems", and "I willingly share my skills and knowledge with others" (Jungert et al., 2017).

Practicing mindfulness to accelerate the process of internalization, which concerns open and receptive attention to the present moment (Ryan et al., 2021).

Train leaders and community builders in autonomy-supportive behavior (Reeve et al., 2004; Hardré & Reeve, 2009):

  • Nurture inner motivational resources (e.g., interests, goals, preferences, morals, feelings) by first gaining awareness of them, to later find ways to coordinate the inner motivational resources with the required work behavior.
  • Rely on non-controlling and informational language (e.g., “If you want to maximize the impact of your donations, consider donating to GiveWell’s top recommended charities as they are considered many times more cost-effective than direct cash transfers”, rather than “You should donate to GiveWell’s top recommended charities if you want to maximize your impact”)
  • Acknowledge and accept negative affect, and promote the value of activities (e.g., “We understand that you might be tired of feedback forms - this is a totally valid reaction - but please remember that your feedback is tremendously important at helping us improve at what we do.”).

Some of these interventions produce effects that tend to intensify over time. (Slemp et al., 2021). This is likely due to there being a lag between training leaders in autonomy-supportive behavior and having employees actually benefit from the leader’s training results. For more hierarchical organizations, it is therefore advised to wait and do follow-ups over the course of a semester or a year before making judgments about the effectiveness of these interventions. 

Providing feedback is essential to building competence, however the effect of feedback varies greatly depending on the manner in which it is given. Since giving feedback can be just as damaging as constructive, this deserves its own forum post. Meanwhile, as a general guideline, feedback should be provided in a clear, manageable but meaningful and specific manner (De Villiers, 2013).
UPDATE: I think Max Daniel's forum post Giving and receiving feedback captures all of the important elements of giving proper feedback while also including clear and relatable examples that aid in actually applying the knowledge.

Relevancy for EA: Personal Takes

SDT appears to be particularly well suited for the EA community. We seem to be a relatively value-aligned community, we seem to care much about self development, and we voluntarily engage in doing what we think is right (i.e., fertile ground for relatedness, competence and autonomy). We also appear to be good at the internalization process, judged by the fact we are primarily motivated by the external consequences of our action (i.e. impact), which would typically undermine autonomous motivation. Conversely, if there is a particularly high rate of burnout among people in the EA community, this would suggest that the external consequences are not well internalized, or that people are mainly driven by internal pressures such as guilt, need for self-esteem, and anxiety (introjected regulation).

Closing Remarks

The interventions mentioned above are broad, allowing for experimentation with various methods. This post can serve as a starting point for future forum posts, and I plan to use it to present specific methods for enhancing engagement among members in university groups. I encourage leaders and community builders to start using this framework for analyzing their own approaches and for creating new strategies. Together, we can experiment with different approaches to determine which ones are most effective for the EA community. 


Special thanks to psychologist Katherine Gibb for verifying the content, to Robert Praas for helping to weed out the less important parts, and to Edward Deci and Richard Ryan for developing the Self-Determination Theory.


Baard, P.P., Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2004), Intrinsic Need Satisfaction: A Motivational Basis of Performance and Weil-Being in Two Work Settings. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34: 2045-2068.

De Villiers, R. (2013). 7 Principles of highly effective managerial feedback: Theory and practice in managerial development interventions. International Journal of Management Education. 11. 66-74. 

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 1–27.

Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331–62.

Gagné, M., Koestner, R., & Zuckerman, M. (2000). Facilitating acceptance of organizational change: the importance of self-determination. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30, 1843– 52.

Hardré, P.L. & Reeve, J. (2009), Training corporate managers to adopt a more autonomy-supportive motivating style toward employees: an intervention study. International Journal of Training and Development, 13: 165-184.

Jungert, T., Van den Broeck, A., Schreurs, B., & Osterman, U. (2018), How Colleagues Can Support Each Other's Needs and Motivation: An Intervention on Employee Work Motivation. Applied Psychology, 67: 3-29.

Reeve, J., Jang, H., Carrell, D. Jeon, S., & Barch, J. (2004). Enhancing Students' Engagement by Increasing Teachers' Autonomy Support. Motivation and Emotion 28, 147–169. 

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2004). Autonomy Is No Illusion: Self-Determination Theory and the Empirical Study of Authenticity, Awareness, and Will. In J. Greenberg, S. L. Koole, & T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (pp. 449–479). Guilford Press.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, Article 101860.

Ryan, R. M., Donald, J. N., & Bradshaw, E. L. (2021). Mindfulness and Motivation: A Process View Using Self-Determination Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 30(4), 300–306.

Ryan, R. M., Ryan, W. S., Di Domenico, S. I., & Deci, E. L. (2019). The nature and the conditions of human autonomy and flourishing: Self-determination theory and basic psychological needs. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 89–110). Oxford University Press.

Slemp, G.R., Lee, M.A., & Mossman, L.H. (2021). Interventions to support autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs in organizations: A systematic review with recommendations for research and practice. J Occup Organ Psychol, 94: 427-457.

Van den Broeck, A., Ferris, D. L., Chang, C.-H., & Rosen, C. C. (2016). A Review of Self-Determination Theory’s Basic Psychological Needs at Work. Journal of Management, 42(5), 1195–1229.


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External controlling factors such as rewards, salary, grades, controlling praise, and punishment almost always undermine autonomous motivation (Deci et al., 2001)

What do you think about the this? Does it mean we shouldn't thank volunteers for the work they are doing and at the same time suggest another project we think would be a good fit for them? Or that the writing competitions with financial incentives can actively harm autonomous motivation unless people have already internalised the values. But in that case do we need the financial reward? I also wonder if this suggests rewarding organisers with gift cards or job certificates undermines autonomous motivation.

Great question! While expected tangible rewards (e.g. prizes) undermine autonomous motivation, unexpected rewards don't undermine autonomous motivation, and verbal rewards generally enhance autonomous motivation (Deci et al., 2001). Let's brake it down to it's components:

Our behavior is often controlled by the rewards we expect to obtain if we behave certain desirable ways such as engage with work, perform well on a task, or complete an assignments. Conversely, we do not experience unexpected rewards as controlling since we cannot foresee what behavior will lead to the unexpected outcome. Verbal rewards are often experienced as unexpected, and may enhance perceived competence which in turn enhances autonomous motivation. That being said, if verbal reward is given in a context where people feel pressured by it to think, feel, or behave in particular ways (e.g. controlling praise) it will typically undermine autonomous motivation. 

I therefore think that thanking volunteers for the work they are doing is unproblematic, and if some information value is included it will enhance autonomous motivation via competence-support (e.g. at an EAG event: "thank you for doing a good job at welcoming the event speakers. We received feedback that they felt relaxed during their stay at the green room, and that they were impressed by the punctuality of you volunteers.").

Assuming that the engagement in writing competitions with financial incentives is driven by the expectance of a tangible external reward, I would expect writing competitions with financial incentives to undermine autonomous motivation unless the rewards are well internalized. The same amounts to gift cards and job certificates. Whether we need financial rewards or not is a tough question I do not have a good answer two. I believe it is a trade-off between short-term and long-term impact, where financial rewards may improve the outcome of a specific activity, such as a writing contest, but lead to lower quality outcomes in the long run because people no longer engage in those activities voluntarily due to low autonomous motivation.