Customer Reviews: Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation
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on June 1, 2003
Few things are harder to understand than why we do what we do. In fact, most psychologists would agree that it is virtually impossible for a person to understand his or her own motivation - and consequently that it is not possible to understand the full scope of motivation of another person. Therefore it would be asking too much from this book to give an answer to the question why we do what we do.
What the book does is summarize findings in the psychology of self-determination and intrinsic motivation, the main fields of research of the author, who has published two books on this subject previously.
Deci starts from the position that individuals have something that can be called a "true self," and that people wish to act in accord with this "true self." They wish to be autonomous (authentic) rather than controlled. If they act autonomously (authentically), they are self-motivated. If they act autonomously, they also respect others because the "true self" wishes to be related to others (a point on which Aristoteles would have agreed, and Thomas Hobbes would have strongly disagreed). Deci assumes that human beings are cooperative by nature, rather than competitive.
The "true self," of course, is an artificial construct, a theory. And even if we assume that there is such a "true self," it is conceivable that there are people whose "true self" is competitive as well as people whose "true self" is cooperative. Some people may simply enjoy open confrontations whereas other people may abhor disharmony and clashes. Deci's book is mostly silent about such issues of personality, and his assumption that the "true self" is expressive of human connectedness is just that - a very general assumption.
Deci's book builds on the theories of an American school of psychology called "Humanistic Psychology." One of the most important proponents of this school was Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) who pioneered the concept of "self-actualization," a technical term for what Nietzsche once called "becoming who you are." Maslow's book "Motivation and Personality" (1954) is still well worth reading.
So, what does this book tell us if it does not tell us why we do what we do? It tells us - quite convincingly - that control is always second-best to autonomy. Deci's core thesis is that "self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change," (9) and that "social contexts that support and affirm people's perceived autonomy and perceived competence enhance intrinsic motivation, while social contexts that diminish people's perceived autonomy and perceived competence undermine intrinsic motivation." (81)
This is not exactly rocket science, but it gets interesting when Deci delves into the details of what "autonomy support" means - not permissiveness, but being clear, consistent and setting limits in an understanding, empathic way. He spells this out on about twenty pages in Chapter 10 titled "How to Promote Autonomy," and I would love to make these pages required reading for parents and managers.
In the nature-nurture debate, Deci's focus lies on the nurture side: "Although the social context is ENORMOUSLY important in affecting people's motivation and behavior, people's personalities ALSO affect their motivation and behavior" (184; italics are mine). In fact, Deci is largely silent about matters of personality, or defines it simply as "autonomy orientation," whereas he discusses the impact of the social context at length.
I am very much a fan of humanistic psychology, which has seen its heyday in the 1960s. It conveys important insights into the impact of "nurture" on human beings. But the assumptions of humanistic psychology about what constitutes human nature appear quite unfounded in the 21st century. To make claims about human nature without recourse to genetics, evolutionary theory, twin research, or the biochemistry of the brain is rather futile. In this respect "Why We Do What We Do" is definitely behind the curve (to make up for this I recommend Matt Ridley's "Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human" (2003) - popular science writing at its best and quite an education).
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on December 29, 1998
This book will be a great addition to any teachers, managers, or parents bookshelves. It explores the psychology of intrinsic (vs. extrinsic) motivation and shows how supervisors, and other people in "one-up" positions, can be more than managers, but true leaders who foster autonomous, authentic growth and responsible decision-making in their subordinates. A must read for anyone who recognizes the lack of responsiblity and accountability in people today and would like to foster positive change in our schools, our companies, and our society.
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on October 20, 2012
Deci very eloquently and thoroughly makes his main point, which is that humans thrive when they make their own decisions without any pressure, coaxing, or reward. Creativity and satisfaction in life requires autonomy. Reward, punishment, and pressure destroy creativity and breeds defiance, open or covert. In addiction studies this basic truth is incorporated into the technique of motivational interviewing. Deci is well backed by myriad studies, some of his own design, that demonstrate just that. Clearly, the nagging or helicopter styles of parenting (or social welfare work) backfires. Anyone who does not already believe so should read this work. There are suggestions for work groups as well.

However, this occurs on the highest or most surface level of motivation. From the title, I expected a deeper, more complex work examining the many layers of motivation, internal and external, conscious and unconscious, biological and psychological. This book is not so much a psychological study as a sociological or philosophical one. The author seems to work backwards from a strong stance of egalitarianism (which in psychology is called humanism), finding an area of social psychology research that affirms that stance strongly. That is, he talks both about how he thinks things should be, and how they are. he mixes an aspirational point of view with an empirical one. Humanism tends to simplistically insist on sameness as a condition of justice. Where he does find evidence of difference, such as gender differences (in one study women were discernibly more demotivated by ambiguous praise than men) rather than get enormously curious and study the difference, he goes on to modify experimental conditions so that this difference disappears! Is that true science or is that politics? Influence over others is treated as intrinsically bad (rather than just risky for misuse) The topic of leadership, authority, legitimate inducement have no natural take off point from his thesis.
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If you are a teacher, parent or manager this book has extremely valuable information that will help you make improvements in the manner you relate to your students, children or employees.

The book is well written, easy to read, with examples of case studies a layman can easily understand. It was written by a professional but specifically written for the average reader. I found that refreshing. So many professionals write to satisfy their peers that they lose the average reader.

Deci advances some ideas that are contrary to the conventional wisdom of getting the most from employees. However his ideas are very compelling and sound.

For example, our system of rewards tries to control a person's behavior. The results of one of the case studies showed that when the rewards were offered with an intent of controlling behavior it sabotaged the desired results.

The only motivation that actually works long term is intrinsic motivation. Deci points out ways that we can foster intrinsic motivation. Unfortunately most of our efforts foster extrinsic motivation using either rewards or threats. Remove the rewards or the threats and the motivation disappears.

While it is well written and contains many valuable lessons, for most readers it will be a new way of thinking and will require periodic reinforcement.
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VINE VOICEon February 25, 2007
This is a very good book written by a Professor in Psychology. All the facts and conclusions in this book have a strong basis in empirical research. If you want to a good overview of human motivation from clinical psychology perspective, this is a must read.

There is, however, scant information on "how to improve" self motivation. The author goes into great depth on what can demotivate people, but provides very little suggestions on how we can improve our motivation.

Perhaps this is due to author's strict adherence to empirical psychology. I imagine he is not a person who will give psychological suggestions lightly.

The author strongly suggests that increasing self motivation involves focusing one our natural autonomous motivation while staying away from environments and thoughts which can demotivate us.

At any rate, this book is superior to the plethora of psychological books based on NLP.

Overall, this is a highly credible book which is worth a read.
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on March 17, 1999
The book's explanation about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is very detailed and interesting. I really enjoyed reading it, and I can relate the concepts explained in the book with my daily experiences. Furthermore, the author(s) explained the concepts with simple language so that the book is very easy to understand. You don't have to be a psychology major to be able to enjoy the book.
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on December 25, 2012
If motivation is largely internal - if there are no silver bullets that, if you do them, will guarantee a highly engaged, motivatated and productive workforce - then what is a manager to do? This is the question I brought to this book. The answer is that the manager can do plenty, but not directly. The key is to support their employee's autonomy, by providing choice (and there is nearly always some opportunity for choice, even in highly structured process driven workplaces), and encouraging participation in decision-making and, above all, lightening up on control. Paradoxically, more control will result in poor performance. This is not a license to do anything the employee wants - and there are still consequences for poor performance (so boundaries need to be set and enforced) - but it is a way to get employees to be focused and engaged of their own volition. There are also some interesting parallels in the book between autonomy and what the Jesuits call indifference - the inner freedom to decide by letting go of unhelpful attachments - and Deci's discussion of unhelpful "ego involvements."
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on June 24, 2014
I usually tell people that Mindset by Carol Dweck should be "required reading" for all parents, teachers and coaches in the US. I still stand by this recommendation...but, I will now add Why We Do What We Do to this recommendation.

Deci outlines the three elements of human motivation with excellent research that comes out of his lab and that of his colleagues. He helps you understand the research and the dimensions of motivation. And, he offers lots of suggestions for how to handle some of the more difficult situations and conversations you might face being a parent and/or leader.

If you read Drive by Daniel Pink, you will appreciate how this goes to the next level. Pink calls upon Deci's research but he's writing for a different audience. Deci helped me realize that there were times when I thought I was "motivating" my kids but it really was just another way of controlling them.

I plan to use this information as a dad, as a little league coach and in my work as an executive coach - great stuff.
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on May 13, 2011
This book gives you some food-for-thought concerning motivation. Unfortunately, it doesn't provide many useful solutions. A lot of the advice concerns motivating other people, students and people who work under you, but doesn't give much help for people who may be in a little bit of a funk motivation-wise. I'm sure most people interested in this books are probably looking for a way to become motivated.
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on November 26, 2006
I learned a lot by reading this book. It really is not an exciting read but if your interested in the subject matter it really is worth the money. By the time I got to the last few chapters I really had wished that the authors would have made it more exciting (or the book just a bit shorter). However, this book was very educational and I think anyone who has an interest in motivation and how it works would do well reading this book.
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