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Performance, incentives, and needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness: a meta-analysis

Abstract

Although self-determination theory (SDT) is one of the most widely cited theories of human motivation and function, critics have questioned the practical utility of its three needs (i.e., autonomy, competence, and relatedness) in performance contexts. We conduct a meta-analysis (k = 108, N = 30,648) to explore the magnitude and boundary conditions of need satisfaction and performance. As expected, autonomy (ρ = .28), competence (ρ = .37), and relatedness (ρ = .25) predict performance. Incentivization per se has little impact on need-satisfaction: instead, the need satisfaction → performance relationship is moderated by incentive salience. Consistent with a crowding-out hypothesis, need satisfaction matters less to performance when incentives are directly salient (ρ = .22) and more when indirectly salient (ρ = .45). Our meta-analysis demonstrates that indirectly salient incentives and need-satisfaction are indeed compatible, providing a direct response to criticisms of SDT in performance contexts. Additional unexpected findings and future directions are discussed.

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Notes

  1. First, cognitive evaluation theory (CET; Deci 1972) was developed in response to Skinnerian behaviorists (e.g., Skinner 1953) to explain how rewards might actually reduce intrinsic motivation (and perhaps subsequent performance). Second, organismic integration theory (OIT; Ryan and Connell 1989) was articulated to show how the motive behind some behaviors changes over time, moving from externally driven to various degrees of internal identification and enjoyment. Third, causality orientations theory (COT; Deci and Ryan 1985) identified individual differences in the extent to which individuals attribute the cause of their actions to themselves or externally. Fourth, and perhaps most germane to our research here, basic psychological need theory (BPNS; Ryan and Deci 2002) calls out the importance of the three psychological needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness), or fundamental nutriments, that when met, pave the road for individuals to seek meaningful and intrinsically enjoyable tasks. Fifth, goal content theory (GCT; Kasser and Ryan 1996) explains how the pursuit of intrinsic or extrinsic goals relates to satisfaction of basic psychological needs. Finally, Relationships Motivation Theory (RMT; Deci and Ryan 2014) helps explain the nature of supportive relationships. For a review, see Vansteenkiste et al. (2010). We thank an anonymous reviewer for helping us focus this point.

  2. It should be noted that a conceptual distinction can be made between perceived support of the need (e.g., flexible work hours, an understanding supervisor) and the perceived satisfaction of the need (e.g., actual feelings and perceptions of autonomy or relatedness). Although it sometimes makes sense to differentiate between the two, we do not do so here because the two have been found to be highly correlated (Gagne and Bargmann 2003) and the distinction doesn’t appear in empirical studies containing performance data. We thank an anonymous reviewer for helping us clarify this.

  3. Reference to a funnel plot (available from the authors) suggested the effect was uniform and not substantial.

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Cerasoli, C.P., Nicklin, J.M. & Nassrelgrgawi, A.S. Performance, incentives, and needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness: a meta-analysis. Motiv Emot 40, 781–813 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9578-2

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Keywords

  • Productivity
  • Academic achievement
  • Literature review
  • Employee motivation
  • Rewards