Willy LENS
Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium
Ghent University, Belgium
Lennia MATOS
Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas
Lima, Peru
The word "motivation" is derived from the Latin "movere" which means "to
move". Motivation refers to psychological forces which move people, bring them into
action and keep them going. Motivational psychology is about covert psychological
processes that are assumed to explain which behavior or action an individual performs
at each moment in time: i.e. the initiation and persistence of an intentional, goaldirected activity. Motivation explains the degree of effort that is spent while
performing an activity, the level of performance in achievement tasks and the
satisfaction and well-being that is derived from an activity and/or its outcome(s). It is,
for example, not only important that students perform well in school but also that they
enjoy studying and may become life-long learners.
Individual differences in motivation usually refer to differences in goal content
(e.g., achievement, affiliation, power, sex, hunger, etc.) and strength or intensity of
motivation (Nuttin & Lens, 1985; Reeve, 2005). Low levels of achievement and
underachievement are often attributed to low levels of motivation. Parents, teachers
and coaches try to increase the strength or quantity of their pupils’ and athletes’
motivation in an attempt to enhance their persistence and the level of their
performances. Empirical evidence made, however, clear that it is also important to
take into account people’s quality or type of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). This is
because some types of motivation are of a better quality than others.
In the present contribution we first discuss the most frequently used
conceptualizations of motivation as a psychological force. In a second part we discuss
Achievement Goal Theory (AGT), Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) and Selfdetermination Theory (SDT) as motivational theories stressing the importance of
distinguishing between different types of motivation. In a final section we summarize
some of our empirical research on instrumental motivation, which examines the
importance of both quantitative and qualitative motivational processes.
Motivation: A Psychological Force
For Lewin (1938) motivation is a psychological force, represented as a vector.
The strength of the motivation or the psychological force (F) to strive for a goal "g"
by an individual "p" or (F(p,g)) is a positive function of the valence of the goal
(Va(G)) and a negative function of the psychological distance between the person and
the goal (e(p,g) or F(p,g) = f (Va(G) / e(p,g)). The anticipated value of a goal (e.g.,
success in an exam) depends on the need or tension (t) of the person (e.g., the need for
success in an achievement task) and on the perceived nature (e.g., degree of difficulty,
type of abilities required by the task) or quality of the goal G. So the motivational
formula can be rewritten as follows: F(p,g) = f (Va(G) / ep,g = f (t,G) / ep,g ). The force
that acts upon an individual to strive for a goal can be increased by increasing the
need for that goal and/or the quality of the goal and by decreasing the psychological
distance between the individual and the goal object.
Also the widely used “Expectancy x Value” theories (Feather, 1982, 1992) and
instrumentality theories of work motivation (Pinder, 1998; Vroom, 1964) estimate the
strength of motivation and predict behavioral choices based on the intensity or
strength of competing motivational tendencies. Following Atkinson’s Theory of
Achievement Motivation (Atkinson, 1964; Atkinson & Feather, 1966), the strength of
the intrinsic motivation to strive for success in an achievement task (Ts) is a
multiplicative function of the individual need for achievement or motive to succeed
(Ms), the probability of success (Ps) – representing the difficulty of the task - and the
anticipated incentive value of success (Is; assumed to be equal to 1-Ps) or Ts = f (Ms
x Ps x Is). The content of the achievement task, the type of abilities required for task
accomplishment and the type of criteria used to evaluate an achievement outcome
(e.g., unique accomplishment, outperforming someone else; performing better than
the previous time) as a success (or failure) are not taken into consideration to calculate
the strength of the motivation to strive for success. This does however not mean that
they would not affect the quantity of motivation (Weinberg, 1975). Also the “Valence
x Instrumentality x Expectancy theories (VIE)” of extrinsic work motivation (Vroom,
1964; Pinder, 1998) refer only to the strength of motivation, not to the quality. In
general, they assume that the motivation to choose a goal or action outcome is a
multiplicative function of the probability that the action will lead to the outcome, the
instrumentality of that outcome for one or more consequences and the individually
anticipated value of the consequence(s). Intra- and interindividual differences in
strength of motivation are used to predict or explain behavioral choices and
behavioral outcomes.
There are, however, also differences in the content or direction of motivational
processes. People have different interests, different goals to which they attach
importance. Some people are strongly motivated for success in difficult achievement
tasks, others are much more interested in positive social contacts (need for affiliation)
or in interpersonal power (need for power). Such differences refer not only to
differences in how much one is motivated (quantity) but also to the content of goals
one is motivated for (a more qualitative aspect of motivation).
Motivation: Quantity and Quality
In this section we will discuss more (or less) recent developments in
motivational psychology in which much importance is given to qualitative differences
in motivation. Empirical research gives ample evidence that – independent of their
strength – some types of motivation or motivational orientations are more adaptive
and that others are maladaptive as they yield negative behavioral and emotional
Achievement Goal Theory
The original theory of achievement motivation (Atkinson & Feather, 1966)
distinguished two uncorrelated goals in achievement situations: the goal to be
successful and the goal not to fail. The first goal is said to satisfy the need for
achievement, whereas the second one would satisfy the need to avoid failure. During
the 1980s and 1990s, the theory of achievement motivation was replaced by
achievement goal-orientation theory (Duda, 2005; Elliot & McGregor, 2001; Pintrich
& Schunk, 2002). This was especially the case in the field of education and sport and
exercise psychology.
In an achievement situation one can have a broad variety of goals, but almost
all achievement goal theorists consider the difference between learning or mastery
goals versus performance or ego goals as a critical distinction (Ames, 1992). To be
mastery-oriented, task-focused or having learning goals means to be intrinsically
motivated to understand, to master the task, to learn, and to develop abilities and
competencies. When individuals adopt such a goal-orientation, tasks will be appraised
as attractive challenges, mistakes and errors might occur but are not perceived as
failures but as opportunities to learn and improve. Mastery-oriented students do not
mind to work hard because they do not perceive high investment in the task at hand as
a compensation for low ability.
To be performance-oriented means that one is not focused on the task that
must be learned or mastered but on how good or bad one performs at the task relative
to others. An achievement task is understood as a possibility to compete with others,
as one is focused on outperforming others and on showing high ability in comparison
with others. Being competent and successful means that one performs better than
someone else. This is the performance-approach goal orientation. In case one wants to
avoid showing low ability in comparison with others one is said to adopt a
performance-avoidance goal orientation. Such individuals avoid challenging tasks
because mistakes are understood as failures due to lack of abilities and they
undermine the individuals’ self-esteem.
Being either performance or task oriented implies being motivated as one is
investing energy in a particular goal. However, the type of goal is qualitatively
different and, as a result, might yield differential effects on students’ learning and
performance. Various studies have provided evidence for these claims. Current
evidence suggests that pursuing mastery goals is more adaptive and that pursuing
performance-avoidance goals is more detrimental for learners’ learning and selfregulation. Specifically, researchers seem to agree that a mastery goal is related to “an
adaptive pattern of attributions and positive affect that will help a student try hard,
persisting, and ultimately doing better on academic tasks” (Pintrich & Schunk, 1996;
p. 239). It has been documented that mastery oriented students process the learning
information at a deep level (Ames & Archer, 1988; Pintrich, 2000b), that they are
more cognitively engaged in a task (Pintrich & Schrauben, 1992), use more
metacognitive and self-regulating strategies (Meece, Blumenfeld, & Hoyle, 1988),
enjoy their learning more (Elliot & Church, 1997) and tend to obtain better academic
grades (e.g., Botsas & Padeliadu, 2003; Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Soenens,
Matos, & Lacante, 2004; Zusho & Pintrich, 2003).
The pattern of correlates associated with performance approach goals has been
more mixed and controversial. For instance, these goals have been related to the use
of surface level learning strategies (Elliot, McGregor, & Gable, 1999), but also with
deep level learning strategies (e.g., Al-Emadi, 2001, Pintrich, 2000; Wolters, Yu, &
Pintrich, 1996) while other researchers reported a null-effect (Elliot, McGregor, &
Gable, 1999). With respect to academic achievement, some researchers reported a
positive association between performance approach goals and achievement in college
students (e.g., Harackiewicz, Barron, Carter, Lehto, & Elliot, 1997). This mixed
pattern of findings provoked an intense debate within the achievement goal literature
(e.g., Harackiewicz et al., 2002; Kaplan & Maehr, 2002; Midgley, Kaplan, &
Middleton, 2001, Vansteenkiste, Matos, Lens, & Soenens, 2007). Some researchers
suggest that their pursuit should not be encouraged, whereas others claim that
performance approach goals are worthwhile to be pursued as they yield very few
negative effects. Instead, performance approach goals have either positive effects, as
in the case of performance, or null-effects, as in the case of intrinsic motivation (e.g.,
Elliot & Moller, 2003; Harackiewciz et al., 2000).
The controversial findings of performance approach goals stand in strong
contrast to the clear-cut negative pattern of findings that have been reported with
respect to performance avoidance goals. Holding performance avoidance goals has
been associated with making less use of deep level learning strategies (Elliot,
McGregor & Gable, 1999), higher levels of test-anxiety (Middleton & Midgley,
1997), lower academic achievement and lower intrinsic motivation (Elliot & Church,
1997), and more use of self-handicapping strategies (Midgley & Urdan, 2001).
The relationships of achievement goal constructs and outcomes are very
similar among different cultures (Kaplan & Maehr, 2002; Kaplan et al. 2002). Matos
(2005; Matos, Lens, & Vansteenkiste, 2007) validated the achievement goal
constructs in a Latin-American sample of Peruvian students, showing again that
relationships hold across cultures, also the ambivalent findings regarding
performance-approach goals.
Vansteenkiste, Smeets, Soenens, Lens, Matos, and Deci (submitted) tested the
hypothesis that the mixed findings associated with performance approach goals could
be explained by the motives or reasons for such goal striving. Based on SelfDetermination Theory (see further) they distinguished between autonomous reasons
(i.e., the desire to outperform others because one finds this goal challenging and
personally important) and controlling reasons (i.e. the tendency to outperform others to
meet external pressures, such as expectations and rewards, or internal pressures, such
as increased self-worth or avoidance of humiliation and anxiety). As predicted, they
found that the pursuit of performance approach goals for autonomous reasons was
related to various adaptive or facilitating learning processes and outcomes such as
better cognitive processing, stronger meta-cognitive processing, greater persistence,
and a more positive scholastic attitude, and that pursuing performance approach goals
for controlling reasons was very debilitating for learning. The autonomous versus
controlled motives underlying performance-approach goal pursuits yield differential
effects. Both task-goals and the pursuit of performance approach goals for autonomous
reasons represent qualitatively optimal types of motivation, whereas the pursuit of
performance approach goals for controlling reasons or pursuing performance avoidance
goals represent rather poor qualitative types of motivation.
Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation
A second distinction between two qualitatively different types of motivation is
the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Deci, 1975; White, 1959).
An action is intrinsically motivated when it is autotelic: this implies that the goal of
the action is the action itself. People can be intrinsically interested in gaining
knowledge, in striving for (more) competence, in being autonomous or selfregulating. Purely intrinsically motivated activities are not instrumental; this is
because the satisfaction is inherently associated with the activity as such (e.g., to learn
about or get more insight in something; to play tennis for the fun of it). An activity is
extrinsically motivated when it is instrumental for reaching a goal that is not
inherently related to the activity (e.g., studying to get a reward; playing tennis to
become a professional and making a lot of money).
Motivational research in educational psychology is mostly limited to intrinsic
motivation (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002), while theories about work motivation more
often deal with the concept of extrinsic motivation (Pinder, 1998). It is, however,
quite evident that many of our activities are both intrinsically and extrinsically
motivated at the same time (Deci, 1975; Lens, 2001; Lens & Rand, 1997). Students
study hard because they are thrilled by insight in and understanding of a particular
phenomenon (e.g., human motivation) but also because they are motivated to succeed
in the exams. Employees, as well as their employers, are motivated for their job by
financial incentives which allow them to make a living for themselves and their
families, but very often also because they like the content of their jobs. This implies
that the total motivation for many of our daily activities must be conceived of as the
sum of an intrinsic and an extrinsic component. The strength of the total motivation to
study, to work, etc. can hence be increased by intensifying the intrinsic or the extrinsic
component, or both.
The observation that a person’s total amount of motivation at one moment in
time is based on the sum of his intrinsic and extrinsic motivation does, however, not
imply that the two types of motivation are additive over time. The title of Lepper and
Greene's 1978-book "The hidden costs of reward" refers to this issue. Since the
beginning of the 1970s, the interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation has
been extensively studied. The prototypical example of it concerns the experimental
examination of the effect of offering extrinsic rewards, which induce extrinsic
motivation, on the pleasure and satisfaction for already intrinsically motivated
activities. Dozens of studies showed that rewards may undermine intrinsic motivation
and much experimental research was conducted to examine the robustness of this
phenomenon and under which conditions it is found (see Cameron, 2001; Deci,
Koestner, & Ryan, 2001; Luyten & Lens, 1981). In general, these studies pointed out
that when extrinsic rewards and other external events (e.g., deadlines, surveillance,
punishments) are perceived by individuals as controlling their behavior, they are
likely to undermine individuals’ intrinsic motivation. This is because they became the
reason for acting, such that when these external contingencies are removed the
individual is no longer motivated to act and seems to have lost his initial interest in
the activity during the rewarding process. Informative rewards, on the other hand,
satisfy the intrinsic need for competence and knowledge and will hence not
undermine but enhance the intrinsic motivation. Rewards can indeed be controlling or
rewarding (Nuttin & Greenwald, 1968). Deci’s (1975) Cognitive Evaluation Theory
(CET) gives an experimentally validated theoretical explanation for this undesirable
side effect of extrinsic rewards and other external contingencies and explains under
which conditions this effect occurs.
Empirical research –mostly, in educational settings and correlational in nature
– has clearly shown that intrinsic motivation is of a better quality than extrinsic
motivation (Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2007; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Stipek, 2002;
Wigfield & Eccles, 2002).
Instrumental motivation for present actions that results from already
anticipated future goals (e.g., to do one’s best in school to become a teacher) is
extrinsic motivation. The present actions are then perceived as instrumental for
achieving future goals. Such activities are not auto-telic but derive utility value
(Wigfield & Eccles, 2002) from those goals in the near or distant future. Instrumental
motivation is indeed – by definition - extrinsic motivation. But, so what? Based on
empirical evidence showing that not all types of extrinsic motivation are low or bad
quality motivation, Deci and Ryan (1985, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2002)
formulated their Self-determination Theory (SDT), replacing the distinction between
intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation by the distinction between autonomous versus
controlled motivation.
Self-Determination Theory
In the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) a new and important distinction is
made between two different motivational questions, commonly referred to as the
‘what’ and ‘why’ of behavior (Deci & Ryan, 2000). What do you want to reach, what
is the goal of your activity and why do you want to achieve that goal, what are the
underlying reasons for your goal striving? Both issues are addressed in greater detail
Why: autonomous versus controlled motivation / behavioral regulation.
SDT’s why-question, on the other hand, refers to the dynamic or
phenomenological reasons that underlie one’s behavior. Two different types or
categories of behavioral regulations or motivations are distinguished, that is
autonomous or volitional versus controlled or pressuring regulation/motivation.
An intrinsically motivated action is by definition autonomously motivated,
volitional, or self-determined. The perceived locus of causality is internal as the
activity directly emanates from a person’s sense of self. The individual’s intrinsic
interests, enjoyment and inherent satisfaction are regulating the activity and represent
the very reason for engaging in the activity.
With respect to extrinsically motivated actions, Deci and Ryan (2002; Ryan &
Deci, 2002) distinguish four different types of reasons or behavioral regulations,
thereby arguing that the four types of behavioral regulation differ in their degree of
autonomy and control and, hence, in their quality. External regulation represents the
most controlled type of regulation and as a result yields the worst correlates, including
lower well-being, depressive feelings, less persistence and less behavioral
effectiveness (Vansteenkiste, 2005; Vansteenkiste, Lens, De Witte, & Feather, 2005).
The locus of causality or the reason for the action is external or totally outside the
individual. Protypical examples of external regulation are activity engagement to
obtain a promised reward, to avoid a threatening punishment, to obey a controlling
order or because one’s behavior is supervised. A student might be highly motivated to
study on Friday-evening because he will then be allowed by his mother to go to a
party on Saturday-evening (extrinsic motivation & external regulation).
Introjected regulation represents a somewhat more adaptive type of regulation,
as the external reason for enacting the activity has been introjected, that is, has been
taken in without being, however, fully accepted as a personal endorsed reason. Thus,
introjection represents only partial internalization. For example, a student may do her
best for school because her parents require her to do so and she does not want to
disobey or disappoint them, because that would create guilt feelings. So she studies
because she does not want to feel guilty.
Identified regulation means that the activity is still extrinsically motivated but
that its reason is to some degree internal because the individual perceives the reason
as personally important. A student may do her best at school because she wants to go
to college and become an architect. She perceives herself as a future architect. This
students’ motivation is instrumental, hence extrinsic, but she identifies with the reason
for studying. Her future goal has personal value, relevance, and importance. Finally,
the qualitatively best type of extrinsic motivation is characterized by integrated
regulation. The external reason for the activity is perceived as totally congruent with
one’s sense of self. It is the most self-determined type of extrinsically motivated
behavior. The locus of causality is perceived as completely internal, as it is with
intrinsic motivation.
It follows from the foregoing that the distinction between intrinsic and
extrinsic motivation becomes less relevant when we consider the different types of
behavioral regulation. What matters more is what regulates the action. Is the cause or
reason an integrated part of myself or is it something that I experience as external to
my sense of self? Do I control my behavior or is it externally controlled? When an
activity is intrinsically motivated or when its regulation is identified or integrated, it is
autonomously motivated/regulated. When the regulation is external or introjected, the
behavioral motivation/regulation is controlled. Autonomous motivation means that an
activity is intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated but characterized by an
identified or integrated type of regulation. Controlled motivation refers to activities
that are extrinsically motivated and characterized by external or introjected regulation.
Dozens of studies have shown positive effects of autonomous versus
controlled motivation for learning, such as lower drop-out, more deep level learning
and creativity, less superficial information processing, higher academic achievements,
and more well-being (see Reeve, Deci, & Ryan, 2004; Vansteenkiste, Lens, Soenens,
& Luyckx, 2006; Vansteenkiste, Zhou, Lens, & Soenens, 2005).
The why-question in SDT does not refer to future goals for which present
actions have utility value or instrumental value. It is different from the “what for”question in expectancy-value theory or instrumentality theory. Future goals (e.g., to
succeed in the exams; to become a teacher; to make a decent living; to become rich)
are very often the purpose or motivational reason (the what-for) of a present activity
or immediate goal. Many of our motivational goals (aims, purposes) are indeed no
end-goals or final-goals but means towards other sub-goals. Sub-goals and final-goals
create instrumental motivation for present activities (see also Husman & Lens, 1999;
Lens, 2006; Tabachnick, Miller, Relyea, 2008). What type of further goal(s) in the
near or distant future explain why one is pursuing a particular goal in the present?
What or What for: Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Goals
Within SDT (Deci & Ryan, 200; 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Vansteenkiste,
Lens, & Deci, 2006) two qualitatively different content categories of motivational
goals are distinguished: intrinsic goals (e.g., community contribution, health, personal
growth, competence, affiliation) versus extrinsic goals (e.g., fame, financial success,
physical appearance, power, status). The former goals are labeled intrinsic because
they are satisfying one of the three innate basic psychological needs that are
distinguished in SDT: the needs for autonomy, for competence, and for relatedness.
The satisfaction of these needs has been found top be positively related to
psychological well-being and positive adjustment. When people are focused on
extrinsic goals, they tend to be more oriented towards interpersonal comparisons
(Patrick et al., 2004; Sirgy, 1998), contingent approval (Kernis, 2003), and acquiring
external signs of self-worth (Kasser, Ryan, Couchman, & Sheldon, 2004). Hence,
extrinsic goal pursuit tends to be associated with poorer well-being and less optimal
functioning than does intrinsic goal pursuit (Kasser & Ryan, 1996). When people
report strong aspirations for extrinsic, relative to intrinsic, life goals, they tend to have
lower life-satisfaction, self-esteem, and self-actualization, higher depression and
anxiety, poorer relationship quality, less cooperative behavior, and greater prejudice
and social-dominant attitudes (e.g., Duriez, Vansteenkiste, Soenens, & De Witte,
2004; Kasser & Ryan, 1993, 1996; McHoskey, 1999; Sheldon & McGregor, 2000;
Sheldon, Sheldon, & Osbaldiston, 2000; Vansteenkiste, Duriez, Simons, & Soenens,
2006). This basic pattern has been replicated in various cultures and in various age
groups (Kasser & Ryan, 1996; Ryan, Chirkov, Little, Sheldon, Timoshina, & Deci,
1999; Vansteenkiste, Lens, Soenens, & Luyckx, 2006; Vansteenkiste, Zhou, Lens, &
Soenens, 2005).
More recently these different goal-contents have been related to academically
relevant outcomes. For instance, Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci
(2004) introduced studying a text on ecological issues in terms of either the attainment
of saving money (an extrinsic goal) or in terms of contributing to the community (an
intrinsic goal). Extrinsic goal framing was expected to distract learners’ attention from
the learning task, thus interfering with deep-level learning. Intrinsic goal framing was
expected to result in a qualitatively different engagement in the learning activity. In
this study, the intrinsic-extrinsic goal framing was introduced in either an autonomysupportive or controlling context. In line with past research (e.g., Grolnick & Ryan,
1987), it was expected that the autonomy-supportive context would lead to better
learning and performance than the controlling context.
It was indeed found that intrinsic goal framing promoted deep level processing
and that test performance and subsequent free-choice persistence were greater in the
intrinsic-goal condition than in the extrinsic-goal condition. Furthermore, students’
goal framing in an autonomy-supportive condition also enhanced deep processing, test
performance, and persistence compared to goal framing in a controlling fashion.
These results were replicated in other studies using different intrinsic goals (e.g.,
personal growth and health), different extrinsic goals (e.g., physical attractiveness),
different learning materials (business communications), and different age-groups (5th
- 6th graders, 11th -12th graders, college students), and they were also obtained when
participants learned physical exercises rather than text material (Vansteenkiste,
Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004; Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, et al., 2005).
Vansteenkiste, Simons, Soenens, and Lens (2004) found that intrinsic versus extrinsic
goal framing not only differentially affected short-term but also long-term persistence.
Students in tenth to twelfth grades were told that the learning of physical exercises
was either relevant to the attainment of physical attractiveness (i.e., an extrinsic goal)
or to the attainment of physical health and fitness (i.e., an intrinsic goal). At the end of
the experiment, participants were asked to demonstrate the physical exercises to other
students one week, one month, and four months later. At the four-month assessment,
participants also had the opportunity to sign up for a year-long course in one of the
marshal arts (tai-bo). The results confirmed and extended the results of Vansteenkiste,
Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci (2004). Intrinsic goal framing resulted in superior
performance and increased persistence, not only over the short term (i.e., one week
after the experiment), but also at each of the follow-up moments and it also predicted
participants’ joining the year-long martial arts course.
Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, et al. (2005) examined whether intrinsic versus
extrinsic goal framing had a different effect on conceptual versus rote learning.
Extrinsic goals would shift students’ attention away from the learning task to its
instrumentality for achieving extrinsic goals. Focusing on extrinsic goal was expected
to result in memorization but not in conceptual understanding the learning material. It
was found indeed, that extrinsic goal framing undermined conceptual learning but did
not harm the children’s rote learning. In fact, in two out of the five assessments of rote
learning across three studies in the Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens et al. (2005) research,
extrinsic goal framing was even found to enhance rote learning. In three other cases,
no significant differences were found for the effect of intrinsic versus extrinsic goal
framing on rote learning. Further, when the goals were presented in an autonomysupportive language, the conceptual learning was greater than when it was presented
with controlling language. This effect was not found for rote learning.
Vansteenkiste, Timmermans, Lens, et al. (2008) assessed students’ intrinsic
relative to extrinsic goals. Students were asked to rate the importance to them of
attaining each of a set of extrinsic goals (e.g., wealth, fame, and image) and a set of
intrinsic goals (e.g., affiliation, growth, and community). The results showed that the
relative importance of the extrinsic goals of the first-year college students was related
to signs of academic maladjustment. Intrinsic goals seem to be more conducive to
academic adjustment than extrinsic goals.
These results imply that teachers and parents can enhance students’ learning,
academic achievement and well-being by helping them to strive for intrinsic rather
than extrinsic goals, or by framing students’ learning activities in terms of intrinsic
rather than extrinsic goals.
Based on correlational and experimental research in educational settings that
was guided by Self-determination theory, we must conclude that students’ learning
and academic achievement can be enhanced if their learning environment fosters
intrinsic goals in an autonomy supportive way, rather than what is common practice,
extrinsic goals in a controlling way (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006;
Vansteenkiste, Matos, Lens, & Soenens, 2007; Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Soenens,
& Matos, 2005).
Instrumental Motivation: The future motivates
Many good students are not only intrinsically motivated for their studies, they
also have future educational, professional and even life goals which motivate them
already now as students. “Do your best at school, it is so important for your future” is
a motivating advice that many parents and teachers use around the world. Schooling is
future-oriented. Many students are motivated to do their best and to do well because
they want to follow a particular type of education in high school, college or graduate
school and to have a particular profession in adult life.
This component of their total motivation that derives from the future goals that
are contingent upon present schoolwork and school grades is called “instrumental
motivation”. Learning and getting good grades have a utility value (Eccles &
Wigfield, 2002) when they are perceived as instrumental for achieving other goals in
the near or distant future. This implies that instrumental motivation requires that
students have set goals for themselves in the near and distant future, that they
developed a future orientation or future time perspective (FTP). Future time
perspective is motivationally relevant because it gives utility value or instrumental
value to present learning activities. As a consequence additional instrumental
motivation will be added to the already present intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
To explain the motivational effects of individual differences in FTP, De Volder
and Lens (1982) made a distinction between a cognitive and a dynamic aspect in FTP.
The cognitive aspect refers to the capacity to anticipate in the present not only the
immediate, but also the long-term consequences of a potential action. Students with a
long FTP can more easily anticipate the implications of their present class activities for
the more distant future and elaborate on the covert level longer behavioral means-end
structures (plans or projects). As a consequence, the utility value or the instrumentality of
present actions (e.g., studying, getting good grades) increases. The dynamic aspect of
FTP is conceived of as a disposition to ascribe a high valence to goals, even if they
can only be reached in the more distant future. In general, the incentive value of a
given reward decreases as a function of the length of its temporal delay (Logue, 1988;
Mischel, 1981). This decrease is less steep for individuals with a long FTP than for
individuals with a short FTP (Gjesme, 1982; Lens & Moreas, 1994). Because the
psychological distance towards such delayed goals is shorter for individuals with a
long FTP, the incentive value of chronologically distant goals will be higher, the
longer the FTP is. The effect of individual differences in the extension of FTP on the
incentive value will be smaller for goals in the very near or very distant goals than for
goals in the intermediate future.
In line with their hypotheses, De Volder and Lens (1982) found a positive
correlation between eleventh grade students' motivation and the length of their FTP.
More motivated students attach significantly more value to goals in the distant future
than less motivated students do. They also attach significantly more instrumental value
to their schoolwork for reaching goals in the near and the distant future. Lens and
Decruyenaere (1991) measured the instrumental value of studying in general (in three
different types of high school education) for success in later life (also in general). They
found that high, medium, and low motivated subgroups of students (based on a
questionnaire measure) significantly differed (in the predicted direction) in the
instrumental value or utility of "doing your best in school" for success in life in general.
Van Calster, Lens and Nuttin (1987) found a significant main effect of perceived
instrumentality on motivation. Students in grade 11 and 12 (age 17-19) who perceive
their education as important for their future (high instrumentality) are significantly more
motivated than students who experience their high school education as less important
(less instrumental). But they also found a significant interaction effect of perceived
instrumentality and affective attitude towards the individual future. Perceived
instrumentality did enhance student motivation, but only for those students who had a
positive attitude towards their individual future. Attaching high utility to school results
had the opposite effect on the motivation to study for students with a negative outlook on
their future. The combination of a high-perceived instrumentality (of doing your best in
school for the personal future) and a positive attitude towards the personal future had a
positive effect on motivation and school results. A very bleak outlook on the future
seemed to be de-motivating, suggesting that the future is only truly motivating when one
has a positive outlook of that future.
Moreas and Lens (1991; see also Lens, 2001) provide further evidence for the
positive correlation between FTP, perceived instrumentality and student motivation.
They asked ninth grade students to rate the importance or value of 10 motivational goals
in the rather near future (within 2 years, that is during their high school years) and 10
goals in the more distant future. They also asked the students to indicate on a 4-point
scale the instrumentality of "doing my best for my studies" for reaching each of those 20
goals. Students with a very long FTP were significantly more motivated than students
with a short or very short FTP. They also found a significant positive relationship
between the length of FTP and the anticipated value of goals, the perceived
instrumentality of study behavior to reach future goals and, hence, on the product of
value and instrumentality. As expected, these relations were stronger for distant goals
than for near goals.
Creten, Lens, and Simons (2001) studied the motivational role of perceived
instrumentality or utility in vocational schools in Flanders (Belgium). Many of these
students have serious motivational problems, especially for theoretical courses such as
mathematics, languages, and history. Most of these students started in a much more
demanding type of secondary education (e.g., humanities, math & sciences) but failed.
They (and especially their parents) were forced to change their educational aspirations
during high school, first to a more technical education and then finally to the lower
educational level of a mostly practical vocational training (in high school). Most of
these students are not any longer intrinsically motivated to study, certainly not for
their more theoretical courses. If they are motivated at all, it is because of extrinsic
reasons. They study because they are forced to or because they will receive material
or financial rewards when they get good grades (Lens & Decruyenaere, 1991).
Many vocational students have also a rather short future time perspective
(Lens & Decruyenaere, 1991; Phalet & Lens, 1995). They do not look very far into
the future, they rather live ‘here and now’. As a consequence, they are not well aware
of or do not care much about the instrumentality or utility of their present school
career. This is even more so for theoretical courses than for more practical courses.
Creten, Lens and Simons (2001) were interested in whether or not the relation
between FTP and motivation would also apply to this problem group or, in other
words, if those students in vocational education who perceived the future relevance
of, for example, a second language were more motivated for that course than students
who are not aware of the future importance of the same course. Is it possible to
motivate these students by pointing to the future contingencies of their present
schoolwork? They found that students are significantly more motivated for an applied,
practical course than for each of two theoretical courses. For each of the three courses
they measured the perceived instrumentality for near (within two years) and for more
distant goals. As expected, practical courses were perceived as most useful and most
instrumental. Students who ascribed more utility to their practical courses were more
motivated for these courses.
However, one may wonder whether the motivational effect of distal goals (or
FTP) on striving for more proximal subgoals depends only on the temporal delay of
the future goal. To answer this question we distinguished different types of
instrumental relationships between present learning tasks and immediate and delayed
goals (Lens, 2001; Lens & Rand, 1997; Simons, Dewitte, & Lens, 2000, 2001). To the
extent that learning is motivated by future goals (instrumental motivation) it is not
rewarding in itself. Adopting the traditional and broadly used definitions of intrinsic
motivation, instrumental motivation can only be extrinsic motivation. Eccles (1984)
has contrasted utility value, which she described as “the importance of [a] task for
some future goal that might itself be somewhat unrelated to the process nature of the
task at hand” (o.c., p. 90) with interest value, which she described as “the inherent,
immediate enjoyment one gets from engaging in an activity.” (o.c., p. 89). In line with
the traditional definition of intrinsic motivation, Eccles (1984) also characterized
utility value as a form of extrinsic motivation and interest value as a form of intrinsic
If instrumental motivation is a form of extrinsic motivation, a first question is
then to know if this also means that the utility value of learning and performing well
in school will undermine intrinsic motivation and task orientation, in the same way as
extrinsic rewards do under certain circumstances. Does instrumentality preclude being
task oriented?
Simons, Dewitte and Lens (2000, 2003) made a distinction between three
types of instrumentality: the present learning task and achieving the future goal for
which present learning is instrumental require the same capacities and the activity is
internally regulated (Endogenous-internal); the present learning task and achieving the
future goal for which present learning is instrumental require very different capacities
and the activity is internally or externally regulated (exogenous-internal or
exogenous-external). The results clearly show that students in physical education who
are acquiring or developing competencies that are important for them in their future
(professional) life and when they do so in a volitional, autonomous way (internal
regulation), develop the most adaptive motivational pattern (e.g., more task-oriented
and less performance-oriented, more intrinsic motivation, enjoyment and effort, and
better performance).
Lens, Simons and Dewitte (2002) distinguish four types of perceived
instrumentality between present learning tasks and future goals. These types are
defined by combining two dimensions. The first dimension refers to the regulation of
students’ behavior: external versus internal regulation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Rigby et
al., 1992). Behavior is externally regulated when its underlying reasons or motives
originate outside the person (e.g., the promise of a reward, an order, the threat of a
punishment). A behavior is internally regulated when its underlying motives are
internal to the individual (e.g., intrinsic motivation, own development, life
projects,…) (see also above). The second dimension refers to the kind of capacities
needed now (during their training or as a student) and in the future (working as a
professional). In other words, this dimension concerns the relation between a present
task and a future task or goal. Tasks in the present are to some extent instrumental to
some future outcomes. Different capacities are used when studying compulsory
courses that are not related to the future professional goals (for example: studying
mathematics to become a nurse). The capacities or competencies used in the present
task and the future task or goal achievement can also be the same (for example:
studying anatomy in order to become a nurse). When the present task requires the
same competencies or capacities as the future task, it has a higher utility or
instrumentality than when it is unrelated to the capacities or competencies needed in
the future.
The combination of these two dimensions (regulation and kind of
capacities/utility value) results in four types of instrumentality: (1) the present task
and the future task require different capacities (low utility value or low
instrumentality) and the future task or goal externally regulates the present activities
(Low Utility and External regulation), (2) the present and the future task are different
regarding the capacities they require but the future task or goal internally regulates the
present activities (Low Utility and Internal regulation), (3) the same capacities are at
stake now and in the future, but the future task externally regulates the present one
(High Utility and External regulation), (4) the same capacities and knowledge are
used at both moments and the future task or goal internally regulates the present
activities (High Utility and Internal regulation).
The motivational correlates of these four types of instrumentality or utility
were studied in a group of 293 students following their first year training as a teacher
(kindergarten teachers, primary school teachers and junior high school teachers). That
is the first year after graduating from high school. The mean age for all students was
19.5 years with SD = 1.7. All students voluntarily participated during regular class
hours. Students were administered a self-report questionnaire that measured different
aspects of student motivation and cognition. The questionnaire included: assessment
of the subjects’ motivation and interest for the courses they had to take during their
first year, the perceived instrumentality of the courses, the preferred learning
strategies (surface and deep level learning strategies), students’ achievement goal
orientation (task goals, performance-approach and performance-avoidance goals),
their study habits (studying during the week, studying during the weekend, and
neglecting the course) and their persistence when encountering some difficulties.
All students had to fill in all items for all courses. They also had to classify
their 12 courses according to both instrumentality dimensions. First, they had to check
whether the course was useful for their education only or also for their future job.
Second, they had to indicate if the motives underlying their efforts were rather
internally or externally regulating their behavior. The combination of both judgments
for each course allowed us to assign every course for every participant to one of the
four types of instrumentality.
Results consistently showed for all dependent measures the most positive and
adaptive scores in the HU-I instrumentality group, that is when students both value
intrinsic reasons and the utility/instrumentality of the course for their future job (high
utility of the course for the future job in combination with internal perceived
regulation (see Lens, Simons, & Dewitte, 2002 for a detailed discussion of these
Also Simons, Dewitte and Lens (2004) distinguished four types of
instrumentality by combining two dimensions: proximal versus distal goals and
controlled versus autonomous behavioral regulation. They found that the different
types of instrumentality were differently related to motivational, cognitive and
achievement measures. Striving for future goals that are experienced as internally
regulating students’ learning resulted in the most adaptive pattern of outcomes (e.g., I
want to become a nurse and therefore I’m studying for diet and nutrition so that I will
be able to do my job as well as possible).
These findings also underline that it is time to abandon the overly prudent
attitude toward extrinsic motivations. The present study shows that so-called extrinsic
motivations (derived from intrinsically motivated future activities as well as from
anticipated future activities that invoke the same skill as the present activity) may not
only be harmless, but instead enhance optimal goal orientation and study motivation.
Vansteenkiste, Simons, Soenens and Lens (2004) found in a real-life
experiment (physical education classes for pupils in grade ten, eleven and twelve) that
framing an exercise activity in terms of future intrinsic goal-attainment (focusing on
health and physical fitness) positively affected effort-expenditure, autonomous
exercise motivation, performance, long-term persistence, and even sport club
membership, while framing an exercise activity in terms of future extrinsic goalattainment (focusing on image and physical attractiveness) undermined those
outcomes compared to a no-future goal control group. Participants in this control
group were provided with no future reference at all. In contrast to future time
perspective theory (Nuttin & Lens, 1985; Lens, 2001), the no-future goal control
group did not differ from a future content-free goal group, in which the general future
importance of the present task was stressed (i.e. “doing taiboo is important for your
future”). This means that the well-intended good advice from parents and teachers
“Do your best at school, it is so important for your future” is not enough to motivate
children. Referring in an autonomy-supporting manner to specif rather than vague
future intrinsic goals is much more motivating.
More is sometimes less: Goal content matters
From the foregoing we can conclude that striving for intrinsic goals in an
autonomous way creates a better quality of students’ motivation than striving for
extrinsic goals for controlled reasons. SDT claims that the content of the goal
(intrinsic versus extrinsic) is an important predictor of students’ motivation, learning
and achievement. But what about the strength or intensity of students’ motivation?
Are students who are motivated by more goals not more strongly motivated to do
well? According to expectancy-value theories (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002; Feather,
1990, 1992; Lens, Simons, & Dewitte, 2002; Simons, Dewitte, & Lens, 2000).
increasing the utility value of the learning activity by indicating its instrumentality to
attain two rather than only one goal should result in higher motivation and more
optimal learning. Such a quantitative approach of motivation holds that the
combination of an intrinsic and an extrinsic goal results in stronger motivation than a
single intrinsic or extrinsic goal will do, because each additional goal increases the
total value of the outcome. SDT predicts however that, due the extrinsic goal, the
combination of an intrinsic and an extrinsic goal will result in a lower quality
motivation than a single intrinsic goal does, but a better quality motivation than a
single extrinsic goal does.
Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Soenens, Matos, and Lacante (2004) tested these
conflicting hypotheses. They created three goal content conditions: an intrinsic goal
condition (i.e. a clean and healthy environment), an extrinsic goal condition (i.e.
saving money), and a condition in which both the intrinsic and the extrinsic goals
were presented. The results showed that intrinsic goal framing led to better
performance and persistence than did either the extrinsic goal framing or the doublegoal framing condition. Moreover, and also in line with SDT, it was found that the
intrinsic versus double goal framing effects on performance and persistence were fully
mediated by participants’ task-orientation, that is, by their motivation to master and
fully understand the learning material. Similarly, the negative effect of the extrinsic
compared to the double-goal framing was also mediated by task-orientation;
participants in the extrinsic goal condition obtained lower achievement scores because
they were less oriented towards mastering the learning material.
Based on the theoretical and empirical studies reviewed in this chapter, we
want to conclude with emphasizing the important distinction between, first, three
different motivational questions, that is “what”, “why” and “what-for”, and, second,
between the quantity and the quality of motivation. Not only the number of goals or
the quantity of motivation is relevant. Also the content of those goals (the whatquestion) matters much. Intrinsic goals lead to a better quality of motivation than
extrinsic goals do. Numerous studies have shown that being intrinsically motivated is
also more optimal than being extrinsically motivated. But as evidenced in SDTresearch, there are qualitatively different types of extrinsic motivation, depending on
how controlling versus autonomous the reasons for acting are (the why-question).
This holds hence also for instrumental motivation. The quality of the motivation that
is derived from future goals or from being future-oriented (the what-for question)
depends on the content of those future goals, on how they are related to the content of
present subgoals leading to those future goals, and on the underlying autonomous
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