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Organismic integration theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


According to cognitive evaluation theory (Deci, 1975), people are sometimes intrinsically motivated to complete tasks. That is, they feel that some tasks are inherently enjoyable, challenging, or significant. They do not merely feel obliged to complete these activities. When individuals feel intrinsic motivation, they tend to be more persistent. Burnout and exhaustion typically diminish.

In contrast, people are sometimes extrinsically motivated to complete tasks. That is, they complete these tasks merely to secure some reward or benefit. When individuals feel extrinsically motivated, their persistence and wellbeing declines.

Some activities, although originally motivated extrinsically, might eventually evoke feelings of autonomy and enhance persistence. This evolution from extrinsic motivation to autonomy unfolds only if the basic psychological needs of individuals are fulfilled (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

In particular, initially individuals might learn to introject a behavior that was initially motivated extrinsically (see Ryan & Connell, 1989). To illustrate, suppose employees receive a bonus each time they convince a customer to purchase a car. Initially, these employees might merely encourage customers to purchase a vehicle to receive this bonus, reflecting extrinsic motivation. Over time, they begin to internalize this behavior, feeling a sense of pride after engaging in this act and guilt or shame otherwise, reflecting introjection. At this stage, individuals do not experience a sense of ownership over the principle to promote cars, but feel they should engage in this act anyway.

Over time, individuals might learn to identify with this behavior, rather than merely introject. For instance, they might perceive or identify themselves as a person who sells cars effectively. As a consequence, they feel motivated to engage in this behavior, primarily to align with this identity.

Finally, individuals might integrate this inclination with other facets of their self concept. For example, they might not only identify themselves with a person who sells cars effectively, but this identity becomes assimilated and integrated seamlessly with their other self perceptions. Behavior feels increasingly more autonomous as individuals shift from extrinsic motivation and introjection through to identification and finally integration.

Integration still departs from intrinsic motivation, however. Integration still coincides with an instrumental outcome and, thus, is not inherently interesting, satisfying, enjoyable, or fulfilling.

According to this conceptualization, called organismic integration theory, individuals can experience a sense of autonomy even when behaviors are extrinsically rewarded. The distinction between autonomous and controlled motivation, therefore, seemed more important than was the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Organismic integration theory is one of the five key principles of self-determination theory (Vansteenkiste, Niemiec, & Soenens, 2010).

Consequences of an autonomous motivation

Cooperative versus opportunistic tendencies

If people report an autonomous rather than a control motivation, they tend to be more cooperative rather than opportunistic during commercial interactions. This relationship was uncovered by Sakalaki and Fousiani (2011). In their first study, to assess autonomous versus controlled orientation, participants completed the General Causality Orientation Scale. In addition, they completed the Economic Opportunism Scale to assess cooperation instead of opportunistic or competitive behavior. Sample items include "When you apply for health insurance, it's not wrong to keep quiet about some health problems so as to keep the premium down" and "When you sell a used car, you are obliged to tell the potential buyer about the car's defects" (reverse scored). Autonomy orientation was inversely associated with economic opportunism.

Indeed, to confirm this result, a subsequent study examined whether an autonomous orientation coincided with actual cooperation, rather than defection, during a trust game (see games). This hypothesis was indeed confirmed.

Another study showed that such economic opportunism was negatively associated with psychological wellbeing. That is, if participants conceded they were competitive during these economic transactions, they were not as likely to experience vitality or self-actualization but more likely to experience anxiety.

Presumably, when individuals do not feel their behavior is governed by their own values, but instead experience a control orientation, they can more readily blame undesirable behavior on other sources, such as the social environment. Furthermore, because they cannot access their own values as readily, they focus more on their immediate enjoyment, often provoking expedient behavior.

Dehumanization and aggression

When individuals seem to be granted limited autonomy, they do not feel energized by their fundamental inclinations and motivations. Instead, they feel mechanical rather than sentient, experiencing a form of dehumization. Because of this sense of dehumanization, they do not feel as responsible for immoral actions, increasing the likelihood of violent or inappropriate behaviour (Moller & Deci, 2009).

Moller and Deci (2009) undertook a study to confirm that autonomy can reduce this sense of dehumanization. First, participants completed a measure that assesses whether or not they demonstrate an autonomous, controlled, or impersonal orientation. That is, some people are motivated to engage in tasks that seem challenging, significant, and enjoyable, called an autonomous orientation. Other people are motivated to engage in tasks that attract rewards and respect, called a controlled orientation. Finally, some people feel that whether or not they realize their objectives depends on factors that transcend their control, called an impersonal orientation. Furthermore, participants also completed a scale that assesses whether or not they feel their fundamental needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness have been fulfilled.

Next, participants completed a questionnaire that assesses whether they perceive themselves, or other humans, as mechanistic. That is, pairs of circles were presented, each overlapping to varying degrees. Participants indicated the pair that represents the degree to which they feel the concept of themselves overlaps with machines. They also indicated the pair that represents the degree to which they feel other people overlaps with machines. Finally, measures of aggression, such as level of anger and hostility, were administered.

Individuals who reported an autonomous orientation, instead of a controlled or impersonal orientation, were more likely to feel their identity overlaps with machines: They felt dehumanized. This sense of dehumanization was also associated with various indices of aggression and anger.

Emotional regulation

An autonomous motivation also facilitates emotional expression--which in turn promotes emotional regulation and wellbeing. For example, in a study conducted by Weinstein and Hodgins (2009), participants watched a distressing video about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Participants who reported an autonomous rather than controlled orientation, demonstrating a tendency to be interested and engaged rather than compelled by imperatives and incentives, were more likely to express their emotions when granted an opportunity to write about their experience. In addition, priming a sense of autonomy was also more likely to demonstrate this tendency to express emotions. In particular, they referred to their personal feelings and states more often, coupled with abstract, cognitive concepts rather than concrete details--which reflects adaptive emotional processing.

Hodgins, Weibust, Weinstein, Shiffman, Miller, Coombs, and Adair (2010) showed that an autonomous motivation, relative to a controlled motivation, enhances the resilience of individuals in threatening situations. Specifically, in this study, participants were monitored during a stressful interview and subsequent speech. In particular, during the interview, participants received 15 threatening questions, such as "Describe a time in which you felt less attractive than a friend". That is, these questions threatened the identity or integrity of individuals. They also answered some questions that were not threatening. After the interview, they presented a speech, intended to persuade someone to attend their college.

The behavior and physiology of these participants were monitored throughout these stressful tasks. For example, the extent to which they expressed defensive remarks was assessed. Fake and genuine smiling was recorded. Vocal characteristics were assessed. Heart rate and blood pressure were monitored as well. The structure, content, and applicability of their speech was also judged. In addition, before these stressful tasks, an autonomous or controlled motivation was induced, using the sentence unscrambling task.

Consistent with the hypotheses, when an autonomous motivation, rather than controlled motivation, was induced, participants showed more resilience. For example, when the questions became more threatening, a controlled motivation was associated with more fake smiles and physiological indices of stress. An autonomous motivation, however, was not associated with these manifestations of stress. The autonomous motivation also enhanced performance on the speech task.

According to Hodgins, Weibust, Weinstein, Shiffman, Miller, Coombs, and Adair (2010), when individuals experience an autonomous motivation, an integrated network of self representations are primed. Discrepant or threatening information is integrated within this extensive network of self beliefs. In contrast, when individuals experience a controlled motivation, more fragile self representations are primed. To preserve these fragile representations, individuals attempt to defend themselves from threatening information, evoking a series of defense mechanisms (see also Hodgins, 2008;; Hodgins & Knee, 2002).

True self-esteem

In short, an autonomous, rather than controlled, orientation seems to curb defensive processing. Specifically, if individuals often experience an autonomous orientation, all of their behaviors, decisions, and choices are governed by their personal inclinations or preferences. As a consequence, their actions, attitudes, beliefs, and other cognitions are likely to be consistent with one another, rather than divergent--called self integration. Their attitudes towards themselves evolves from these integrated reprsentations and thus tend to be consistent over time, called a true self esteem (see Deci & Ryan, 1995).

Specifically, according to Deci and Ryan (1995), individuals feel a fundamental need to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When all these needs are fulfilled, individuals develop the capacity to explore and master their environment as well as internalize cultural values and practices to seek meaning and connection, ultimately improving their wellbeing.

When individuals pursue these core needs, they feel worthy--they feel this true high self esteem. Deci and Ryan (1995) maintain that individuals do not seek this true high self esteem& this state emerges naturally and effortlessly. This form of self esteem is independent of success and represents an expression of core needs.

When some of these fundamental needs are not pursued, however, individuals do not experience this true high self esteem. They will, therefore, attempt to seek other opportunities to improve their state. In particular, they will strive to fulfill some artificial standard of excellence rather than pursue their core needs (Deci & Ryan, 1995).

Thus, if individuals often experience a controlled motivation, their behaviors, decisions, and choices are often governed by other pressures and incentives--usually distinct from their personal needs, inclinations, and preferences. These pressures and incentives vary across contexts. Their actions, attitudes, and other cognitions will often contradict one another over time, which precludes self integration. Their attitudes towards themselves, thus, also varies across different contexts, called a contingent self esteem (see Deci & Ryan, 1995).

When they succeed, their self esteem will rise& when they fail, their self esteem will decline. Their attitude towards themselves is thus unstable over time and contingent upon unsustainable success. This self esteem is thus fragile, demanding continuous validation (see also optimal self esteem).

Because their self esteem does not reflect their entire gamut of integrated experiences, these individuals devote effort into directing their attention towards the subsets of domains or activities in which they prevail. That is, they attempt to divert their attention from failures, dismiss the importance of shortfalls, or reject criticisms about their behavior. As a consequence, a controlled orientation is associated with defensiveness (Hodgins, Yacko, & Gottlieg, 2006). Furthermore, the implicit self esteem of these individuals tends to be low (Hodgins, Brown, & Carver, 2007).

These defensive responses tend to compromise emotional regulation. Upsetting, disturbing, and distressing experiences are not integrated with other representations or perceptions of the self. Hence, these negative experiences penetrate conscious awareness, vividly and repetitively, in at attempt to facilitate this integration (for a description of this process, see Lyubormirsky, Souse, & Dickerhoof, 2006;; Weinstein & Hodgins, 2009).

Determinants of feelings of autonomy

Some conditions or environments foster or support autonomy. According to proponents of self-determination theory, the environments that support autonomy enable everyone to feel like a separate individual, able to choose their own course of action. Specifically, people feel the environment supports their autonomy whenever other individuals acknowledge and inquire about their feelings or perspectives, justify their requests meaningfully, and offer choices (e.g., Grolnick, 2003;; Ryan, 2005). Environments that foster support, called autonomy supportive, are not devoid of structure or involvement from leaders (Joussemet et al. 2008). And people are not treated as pawns to be controlled (Deci & Ryan, 1987).

Perspective taking and empathy

Koestner, Powers, Carbonneau, Milyavskaya, and Chua (2012) explored the behaviors that foster an autonomous motivation in other people. They showed that people who adopt the perspective of other people and show empathy tend to foster an autonomous motivation in other individuals, such as romantic partners or friends. This autonomous motivation, in turn, facilitates progress towards goals.

In the first study, romantic couples from a university completed questionnaires each week or so over a month. They specified an academic, health, relationship, and friendship goal they would like to achieve during the semester, such as "receive a 3.7 GPA". Next, they indicated the degree to which their partner shows empathy, called autonomy support, or offers guidance, called directive support. Sample items for each facet of support include "I feel that my partner understands how I see things with respect to my goals" and "My partner helps me problem solve about my goals" to gauge autonomy support and directive support respectively. In addition, they indicated the degree to which they feel intrinsic motivation or autonomy when they pursue these goals as well as the extent to which they feel they have progressed on these goals.

As predicted, autonomy support, primarily epitomized by perspective taking and empathy, was related to an autonomous or intrinsic motivation, which in turn coincided with goal progress. Factor analyses differentiated autonomy support and directive support. Most of the items that measured autonomy support concerned the degree to which individual felt their partner understood their needs, listened carefully, demonstrated confidence in them, and encouraged openness and disclosure. The second study replicated this pattern of results, but with friends instead of romantic partners. The same pattern of findings was also observed when participants were asked to identify goals they had not set themselves but had been imposed by someone else.

Support from peers

Many studies have shown that autonomy support from supervisors encourages wellbeing in individuals. Moreau and Mageau (2011), however, showed that autonomy support from peers is also positively associated with wellbeing and work satisfaction in health professionals, even after controlling autonomy support from supervisors.

In this study, the participants were newcomers in medicine, veterinary medicine, and dentistry. They completed a measure that gauges the autonomy support that both their supervisors and colleagues provide. To gauge autonomy support, the questions related to the degree to which individuals felt the other people granted them choice (e.g., "Within certain limits, colleagues give me the freedom to choose how and when I will execute my tasks"), communicated the rationale for requests (e.g., "When my supervisors ask me to do something, they explain why they want me to do it"), and inquired about their feelings or perspectives (e.g., "My colleagues take the time to listen to my opinion and my point of view when I disagree with them"). In addition, the degree to which these supervisors and colleagues engaged in controlling behaviors, including imposing orders, inducing guilt, communicating threats, and manipulating people with rewards, was assessed. Furthermore, the degree to which individuals felt satisfied at work, intent to leave, satisfied with life, depressed, and anxious were measured as well. Finally, the extent to which they have been exposed to stressful life events and experience suicidal ideation was evaluated.

Autonomy support from colleagues was positively associated with work satisfaction and life satisfaction but negatively related to intent to leave, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, even after controlling exposure to stress. Even after autonomy support from supervisors was controlled, autonomy support from colleagues was still related to work satisfaction and life satisfaction. Accordingly, autonomy support can be provided by people in egalitarian, instead of hierarchical, relationships.

Mental imagery

Duncan, Hall, Wilson, and Rodgers (2012) showed that individuals could engage in mental imagery to foster integrated regulation, in which individuals feel some behavior, such as exercise, is an important part of who they are. For example, in one study, participants completed a guided mental imagery to increase the extent to which exercise was integrated with their sense of self. They were instructed to imagine themselves arriving at a gym, preparing their exercise, warming up, completing the workout, and cooling down. At the same time, they imagined feelings and thoughts that epitomized integrated regulation, such as "You feel like you belong" and "You feel like an exerciser". In the control condition, participants heard about the benefits of exercise.

Participants, all of whom were female, engaged in an eight week program. Across the eight weeks, participants who were exposed to the guided imagery instructions were more likely than participants who were informed about the benefits of exercise to experience integrated regulation. They were, for example, more likely to endorse statements such as "I participate in exercise because it has become a fundamental part of who I am".

Core needs

According to self determination theory, individuals are more likely to experience a sense of autonomous motivation, ultimately optimizing wellbeing and progress, if their basic psychological needs are fulfilled. (Ryan & Deci, 2000). That is, all humans experience a profound need to feel autonomous, competent, and related to other individuals (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Some contexts facilitate the achievement of these fundamental psychological needs. These contexts, according to self determination theory, facilitate internalization and integration and thus foster autonomous motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Hence, contexts that promote autonomy, competence, and relationships will ultimately inflate the likelihood of autonomous motivation. For example, behaviors that are endorsed in some context, and are thus extrinsically motivated, will eventually be integrated if individuals feel connected and related to the individuals in this setting.

Several studies have characterized the contexts that afford this sense of autonomy and thus promote integration. To establish these contexts, referred to as autonomy supportive, authority figures, such as parents, managers, and teachers, should relate uninteresting activities to core values, acknowledge the feelings and perspectives of the individual, provide sufficient information, and offer some sense of choice (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, & Leone, 1994). These supportive conditions enhance autonomy and wellbeing in many contexts (Williams & Deci, 1996;; Williams, Levesque, Zeldman, Wright, & Deci, 2003).

Natural environments

As Weinstein, Przybylski, and Ryan (2009) showed, exposure to nature can also increase the likelihood that individuals experience a sense of autonomy and pursue intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, goals. In one study, for example, individuals were exposed to slides that depict either urban environments, such as a city building, or natural environments, such as a canyon. If exposed to natural environments, participants experienced a greater a sense of autonomy, endorsing items like "Right now, I feel like I can be myself". Furthermore, they regarded community and relationships as more important than fame and fortune. Similar benefits were observed when plants were included in the surroundings.

In particular, according to Weinstein, Przybylski, and Ryan (2009), nature is inherently interesting and thus directs the attention of individuals towards their immediate environment. As a consequence, individuals do not feel their behavior is governed by obligations& a sense of autonomy thus evolves. They become more inclined to pursue personal aspirations in lieu of money, recognition, and power.

Compatibility with subliminal or visible cues

When individuals complete an act that is compatible with subliminal cues, such as after they press the right of two buttons after subliminally exposed to the word right, they experience a strong sense of agency. That is, they feel they chose to initiate this action. This sense of fit or compatibility evokes a sense of agency. In contrast, when individuals complete an act that is compatible with some visible or loud demand, their sense of agency diminishes.

These possibilities were substantiated by Damen, Van Baaren, and Dijksterhuis (2014). In one study, a series of X-es appeared on the screen. After these letters appeared, participants pressed either a left or right button. When the left button was pressed, a high tone was played. When the right button was pressed, a lower tone was played. Once participants heard the tone, they were asked to indicate, on a 100 point scale, the extent to which they felt they had caused this sound to be emitted. Importantly, before some of the X-es, the word left or right appeared, either subliminally or visibly.

If the button that participants pressed diverged from the subliminal word--for example, whenever the subliminal word was right but participants pressed the left button--they felt they did not cause this sound. Their sense of agency diminished. In contrast, if the button that participants pressed diverged from the visible word, they felt they did cause this sound. Agency was restored.

Presumably, actions that align to subliminal primes instil a sense of fit that facilitates processing. Participants do not feel hampered, and thus feel they chose their actions. In contrast, actions that align to visible primes may provoke a different reaction: Individuals may feel they were coerced into this behavior.


Individuals might experience a sense of autonomy, which promotes intrinsic motivation, when they feel independent. Nevertheless, independence does not always equate with autonomy (Deci a& Ryan, 2008). For example, some individuals might feel obliged to act independently, assuming that such behavior will be regarded as appropriate. Alternatively, some individals might feel obliged to act independently because they do not trust anyone else. In these instances, the tendency to act independently represents a form of control, not autonomy, volition, and choice.

Neurological underpinnings

As Legault and Inzlicht (2013) showed, the benefits of an autonomous motivation are partly mediated by larger error rated negativity, an event related potential or brainwave that emanates from the anterior cingulate cortex and indicates the environment diverges from goals or expectations, ultimately facilitating self-control. This finding implies that an autonomous motivation increases the tendency of individuals to accept or acknowledge problems and improve discipline.

For example, in one study, participants first completed a measure that gauges whether they tend to experience an autonomous or controlled motivation. For example, they were asked whether, while reflecting on a new job, they consider interest and challenge, indicating an autonomous motivation, or opportunities to advance, indicating more of a controlled motivation. Next, they completed the Go-No Go task, in which they needed to press a button whenever M appeared on a monitor and not to press a button whenever W appeared. On most trials, M appeared and participants needed to press a button. Inhibiting themselves from pressing the button when W appeared, therefore, demanded self-control. While completing this task, EEG was measured.

In general, participants who reported an autonomous motivation demonstrated better self-control on the Go-No Go task& they inhibited responses to W more effectively. Furthermore, when they committed errors, the error-related negativity potential, a deflection that is detected between 50 ms and 150 ms after the response and recorded at the frontocentral midline, was especially strong in amplitude. This result was replicated when autonomous motivation was manipulated by providing autonomy supportive or autonomy unsupportive conditions.

These findings are consistent with the notion that autonomy increases the openness of individuals to negative feedback (Hodgins & Liebeskind, 2003) and diminishes their tendency to become defensive and deny the problem. That is, when autonomous, people feel motivated to develop their capabilities on this important task and, thus, accept negative feedback--feedback that is represented by the error rated negativity.


Several measures differentiate the various motivations--intrinsic, identified, introjected, and extrinsic, for example--in specific domains. The Behavioral Regulations in Exercise Questionnaire, for example, was developed and validated by Mullan, Markland, and Ingledew (1997). This scale comprises 15 questions. The stem for each question is "Why do you exercise?" Four of the questions assess extrinsic or external motivation (e.g., "I exercise because other people say I should"). Three of the items correspond to introjected motivation (e.g., "I feel guilty when I don't exercise"). Four of the items reflect identified motivation (e.g., "I value the benefits of exercise"). Finally, four of the items correspond to intrinsic motivation (e.g., "I exercise because it's fun"). Test-retest reliability over a week ranged from .76 to .90 for the four subscales.


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