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Cognitive evaluation theory

Dr. Simon Moss


Cognitive evaluation theory is a precursor of self-determination theory and centers on the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Deci, 1975& Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006). When individuals experience intrinsic motivation, they engage in behaviors they perceive as inherently interesting, satisfying, gratifying, enjoyable, fulfilling, and absorbing. When individuals experience extrinsic motivation, they engage in behaviors merely because of the objective consequences they might attract, such as tangible rewards or praise. In contrast to extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation tends to enhance persistence, wellbeing, and creativity.

Originally, these two forms of motivation were regarded as additive (Atkinson, 1964)& that is, increases in either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation would promote a corresponding escalation in behavior. However, in contrast to this additive model, an extensive array of studies showed that extrinsic rewards, such as deadlines (Amabile, DeJong, & Lepper, 1976), and surveillance (Plant & Ryan, 1985), tended to curb the intrinsic motivation to engage in these acts (for a meta-analysis, see Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999& see also the overjustification effect).

In some instances, however, these extrinsic rewards do not compromise the intrinsic motivation of individuals. Specifically, rewards that did not depend on performance did not cub intrinsic motivation, presumably because such incentives did not seem to control behavior (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). Taken together, these findings indicate that any forces that curb autonomy and choice--impending rewards, threats, or evaluations, for example--tend to reduce intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Similarly, a social climate that is supportive, rather than controlling, also tends to inflate intrinsic motivation (e.g., Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004).

One exception to this pattern of observations has been observed: positive evaluations of performance, although not a manifestation of autonomy, sometimes increase rather than decrease intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). Accordingly, Deci and Ryan (2000) argued that information that underscores the competence of individuals also confers intrinsic motivation.

Consequences of intrinsic motivation

Creativity: Role of pro-social motives

Many studies have shown that an intrinsic motivation enhances creativity. Nevertheless, Grant and Berry (2011) highlighted some complications that challenge the simplicity of this conclusion. In particular, according to Grant and Berry (2011), intrinsic motivation tends to enhance the originality, but not always the utility, of ideas. That is, when individuals experience these forms of motivation, their suggestions are often novel but may not be useful.

To clarify, if individuals experience an intrinsic motivation, their primary objective is to satisfy their curiosities and pursue their interests. Their attention, therefore, tends to be oriented towards novel stimuli or unconventional concepts. Because of this orientation, their thoughts and suggestions are more likely to be original. Although original, these thoughts will not necessarily align to the needs of other people. They will not, therefore, fulfil one of the key criteria of creativity: usefulness.

However, if individuals experience a pro-social motivation, in which they care about the interests of other people, their suggestions are more likely to be useful. Because of this pro-social motivation, individuals are more inclined to adopt the perspective of other people. Their thoughts and suggestions, consequently, are more likely to align somewhat to the needs and concerns of other individuals. Their ideas will tend to be useful.

In short, these arguments imply that an intrinsic motivation is likely to promote creativity, but only if individuals also exhibit a pro-social motivation. Grant and Berry (2011) conducted three studies that substantiate this hypothesis. In the first study, participants completed a scale that assesses intrinsic motivation at work. They also completed questions that gauge the degree to which they are motivated to benefit other people at work, reflecting a pro-social motivation. Finally, their supervisors rated the extent to which their ideas are creative. As hypothesized, intrinsic motivation was positively related to creativity, but only when pro-social motivation was elevated.

The second study was similar, except many other variables were controlled. That is, the same pattern of findings were observed even after controlling skill variety and autonomy on the job, a sense of psychological safety, conscientiousness, and extraversion. Furthermore, pro-social motivation was shown to enhance perspective taking, which in turn moderated the relationship between intrinsic motivation and creativity.

In the final study, intrinsic motivation and pro-social motivation were manipulated instead of measured. To evoke an intrinsic motivation, for example, participants were granted a choice over which of two tasks to complete. They were then told they chose the interesting task. Hence, both choice and interest were emphasized---key determinants of intrinsic motivation. To curb intrinsic motivation, after participants chose a task, this choice was rejected, and they were told to perform a boring task instead. Actually, participants in both groups still completed the same task.

To manipulate pro-social motivation, all participant were instructed to generate ideas that could help a band. To evoke a pro-social motivation, some participants were told the band greatly needed assistance, to elicit a sense of empathy or compassion. Other participants were told the band does not greatly need assistance. As in the previous studies, intrinsic motivation was more likely to enhance the creativity of ideas but if coupled with a pro-social motivation.

One practical implication is that managers should evoke compassion in employees to enhance creativity. They could, for example, as vividly as possible, depict the problems and emotions that customers are experiencing.

Creativity: Role of self-control

Chang, Huang, and Choi (2012) showed that autonomy does not always improve the originality of solutions. Indeed, if people report limited self-control or discipline, autonomy can actually diminish the originality of solutions.

In this study, participants completed the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking-Figural Forms, comprising a series of tasks. For example, on one task, the individuals were asked to draw a picture that includes a teardrop or jellybean. Before completing these tasks, however, levels of self-control were gauged, with questions such as "People would say that I have strong self-discipline". In addition, levels of autonomy were also manipulated. To foster autonomy, some participants were permitted to shift between the tasks. To impede autonomy, other participants were told to dedicate six minutes to each task. Interestingly, if self-control was limited, participants provided more original responses if granted no autonomy. Presumably, these individuals could not motivate themselves or coordinate their tasks as effectively& they performed better when specific instructions were imposed.

Motivating self-talk

In contrast to the implications of cognitive evaluation theory, many experts and managers assume that individuals will not work effectively unless they are monitored carefully and rewarded appropriately. They presume that employees, for example, will withdraw effort unless somebody else, like a supervisor, encourages them to work effectively. This assumption does not only diverge from scientific findings but also overlooks the capacity of individuals to encourage themselves whenever they feel autonomous.

Specifically, as Zell, Warriner, and Albarracin (2012) showed, when individuals feel autonomous, they tend to split their consciousness into two characters: a commander and an achiever. The commander communicates directives, such as "You need to concentrate" and the achiever implements these directives. The upshot is that people tend to engage in self-talk, intended to motivate themselves to complete tasks, whenever they feel autonomous and intrinsically motivated.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Zell, Warriner, and Albarracin (2012), on some trials, participants read various scenarios about a person who felt autonomous& for example, a man might have reflected upon whether or not he should arise from bed in the morning. On other trials, participants read various scenarios about a person whose behavior was constrained by someone else& for example, one child was directed to be silent by a parent. After they were exposed to each scenario, participants imagined what the individuals would think in these scenarios. Independent judges rated these thoughts. If the scenario invited autonomy, the thoughts of participants tended to include the word "You" as well as imperatives, such as "must concentrate". As these results imply, when people feel autonomous, their self-thoughts tend to revolve around one facet of their psyche directing commands to another part of their psyche.

Further studies, conducted by Zell, Warriner, and Albarracin (2012), uncovered other conditions that promote this form of self-talk. In particular, if people experience adverse events or implement activities, rather than plan or evaluate activities, their self-talk is also likely to comprise the word "You" as well as imperatives.

Determinants of intrinsic motivation


Individuals are intrinsically motivated to engage in tasks that seem interesting and challenging. Many factors can increase the likelihood that a task appears to be interesting, such as novelty, incongruity, surprise, and humor (e.g., Hidi & Renninger 2006& Matarazzo, Durik & Delaney, 2010& Silvia, 2003, 2005).

Several studies have examined the benefits of humor on task interest, revealing a complex seriers of observations. Humor comprises many features that foster interest, such as novelty and incongruity. Novelty and incongruity tend to increase arousal and generate involvement in the task. In addition, humor increases positive emotions, and these positive emotions can also increase motivation to participate (Matarazzo, Durik & Delaney, 2010).

Nevertheless, the effects of humor are not straightforward. To illustrate, Matarazzo, Durik and Delaney (2010) examined the effects of humor on learning mathematics. Specifically, in this study, participants were taught a particular algorithm, comprising four steps, that enables individuals to multiply numbers without using a pen and paper.

Some, but not all, participants were exposed to humorous material while learning this technique. An example is "Anita Man signed up for an online dating service. Since then, she has gone on 14 first-dates each month for the last 12 months, and is still single. How many men has Anita Man driven away with her charm?". In addition, only some, but not, all participants were exposed to humor after they learnt this technique but while they received instructions about an impending exam. An example is "You will have 3 min to complete as many of the problems as you can...Begin when you are ready to multiply your little heart out".

Before the learning phase, participants answered some questions that assess their interest in mathematics. A typical question is "Math just doesn't appeal to me". After the learning phase and test instructions, they received an exam, assessing their ability to apply the technique and to multiply numbers. Finally, they completed a series of measures, intended to assess the extent to which they felt involved and absorbed in the task, the emotions they experienced, and the degree to which they felt the technique was interesting.

If participants were not usually interested in mathematics, humor while learning the technique increased the likelihood they enjoyed the task. Specifically, humor also curbed feelings anger or hostility, and these feelings enhanced interest. In contrast, if participants are usually interested in mathematics, the humor at this time did not increase task enjoyment. Indeed, humor slightly compromised enjoyment in these participants. Humor during the instructions before the exam were not effective. Finally, humor did not actually improve exam performance.

The second study was similar, but also examined whether resentment and perceptions of the teacher were related to humor However, neither of these factors mediated the association between humor and enjoyment.

In short, humor seems to be effective in people who are not otherwise motivated or interested in the task. If individuals are usually interested in the task, the humor might be ineffective or even counterproductive. Humor might distract attention and curb absorption or merely imply the task is not inherently interesting.


When people engage in rituals, they actually tend to consume more food, including chocolates, lemonade, and even healthy snacks, such as carrots (Vohs, Wang, Gino, & Norton, 2013). A delay between the ritual and the opportunity to consume these foods merely amplifies enjoyment of this consumption.

For example, in one study, conducted by Vohs, Wang, Gino, and Norton (2013), participants were asked to taste some chocolate. Before tasting the chocolate, however, some participants engaged in a ritual: They were asked to break the chocolate in two, unwrap one half and eat that half before unwrapping the other half. If participants had engaged in this ritual, they reported enjoying the chocolate more. They also spent more time eating the chocolate--a measure of savoring. They also claimed they would be willing to pay more to buy this chocolate in the future.

The second study was similar, besides a few changes. First, participants ate carrots rather than chocolate. Second, they performed either the same ritual before tasting each carrot--tapping their knuckles on the desk, breathing deeply, and closing their eyes--or different movements before tasting each carrot. Third, in one condition, a delay between the ritual and consumption was imposed. Only the repeated ritual enhanced both anticipation and enjoyment of the carrot. Interestingly, the delay heightened these responses. Presumably, the delay evoked a goal that revolved around enjoyment& the effect of goals tends to escalate, rather than decline, over time. As the third study showed, these effects diminish when people merely observed, rather than engaged, in these rituals. The final study showed that intrinsic interest and fun, rather than boredom, mediated the relationship between rituals and enjoyment.

Therefore, rituals, like stirring liquids or other actions, seem to promote a feeling of interest, improving enjoyment. Arguably, people may associate rituals with feelings of familiarity, promoting a sense of safety rather than anxiety.


Controversial topics are perceived as more interesting--and thus intrinsically motivating--than uncontroversial topics. Yet, controversial topics are also more inclined to evoke feelings of discomfort than uncontroversial topics. Consequently, in general, individuals are more inclined to allude to topics that are moderately controversial--controversial enough to foster interest without provoking undue discomfort. However, if the discussion is anonymous or between close friends, the likelihood of discomfort subsides.

These possibilities were proposed and validated by Chen and Berger (2013). In one study, the researchers analysed the number of anonymous comments that various articles on a website called Topix.com attracted. Independent judges evaluated the degree to which each article was controversial, defined as the degree to which they provoked dispute and debate. A moderately controversial topic was about a bill to ban e-cigarettes. A very controversial topic was about a senator who encourages students to encourage firearms on campus. The moderately controversial topics generated more comments than uncontroversial or very controversial topics.

Subsequent studies replicated this finding in a laboratory setting. Ratings of interest and discomfort mediated these relationships. In addition, as these studies showed, when the comments were no longer anonymous, the uncontroversial topics generated more discussion than moderately controversial topics. Finally, when conversing to friends, the most controversial topics generated the most comments.

Implications of cognitive evaluation theory


Self determination theory also offers some insight into the distinct variants of passion. For example, Vallerand, Blanchard, Mageau, Koestner, Ratelle, Lonard, Marsolais et al. (2003) distinguish two forms of passion: harmonious and obsessive passion. Harmonious passion emanates when individuals choose to engage in a beloved activity. That is, in this instance, the activity is inherently enjoyable or has been internalized into the identity of individuals. Individuals feel a sense of choice over whether they would like to engage in these pursuits.

In contrast, obsessive passion emanates from a compulsion in individuals to complete these activities. That is, individuals experience a controlled motivation. They feel they should undertake this activity to enhance their sense of worth, to impress another person, or to fulfill an uncontrollable urge to seek excitement. They do not feel a choice over whether they can engage in this pursuit: They feel compelled.

This dualistic model of passion has received empirical support. For example, in one study, conducted by Carbonneau, Vallerand, and Massicotte (2010), participants completed measures as to whether they experience harmonious passion or obsessive passion towards yoga. A sample item to measure harmonious passion is "Doing yoga is in harmony with the other activities in my life". A sample item to measure obsessive passion is "I have almost an obsessive feeling for yoga". Harmonious passion was negatively associated with the experience of anxiety and symptoms of illness over the next three months. Obsessive passion was positively associated with negative emotions over this period.


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