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45 / Motivation and Self-Determination Theory

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Paul Gebel




Scott Rigby, Ph.D.

Immersyve Inc.

Scott Rigby, Ph.D. is an author, behavioral scientist, and founder/CEO of Immersyve Inc., a company focusing on the application of behavioral science to organizations, products, and services. Scott and Immersyve work with both small and large companies on culture and the development of motivational best practices. He is a leading authority on predictive measurement of motivation and engagement, as well as on interventions to improve organizational culture. Clients include Prudential, Amazon, Warner Brothers, Johnson & Johnson, and Disney.

Scott has authored numerous publications, including the highly rated book Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound. He is the creator of the “Personal Experience of Need Satisfaction” (PENS) model, a widely used engagement model in interactive design. His work on understanding engagement and motivation has been featured by Wired, ABC News, BBC, National Public Radio, National Geographic, and Scientific American, among others. He is also the co-creator of motivationWorks, a platform that empowers organizations to build greater employee engagement and stronger cultures using motivational science. In addition to his commercial work, he has also served as the principal investigator on multiple grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health exploring the role of behavioral science to improve engagement and wellness.

With so many touchpoints between Self-Determination Theory and software product development, it’s difficult to know where to begin. In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean and Paul welcome Scott Rigby, Ph.D. to discuss the interplay between Self-Determination Theory and software product development. As product leaders strive to improve users’ lives, what better way to fulfill this mission than to embrace the needs that drive them. Scott guides us well beyond the theoretical, venturing deep into its application founded on two critical shifts since his work in this area began.

The first deals with motivation. Specifically, that motivation is ‘something I do to you’ and that ‘whatever I do to motivate you’ is good because the more I do, the more I’ll get. As it turns out, Scott says, that way of thinking is not only not correct, we just can’t get by with it anymore.

The second shift, closely related to the first, deals with empowerment. We once lived in a world in which companies and institutions held all the power and made all the rules.  Consumers existed only in orbit around them, controlled and manipulated by the way they structured our existence. Not so these days, Scott offers.

“We call it the Copernican turn; we realized that who’s in orbit around what has completely changed.” Over the past 15 years or so, the gravitational pull that companies and institutions once relied on has waned. Now they say, ‘I’ve got to do the right things to have [consumers] select me…I have to understand the thing that drives them to be motivated to make that choice.’

Understanding these shifts introduces only a kernel of knowledge of Scott’s work over the past 30 years. But it’s fundamental to the real-world application of the vast theoretical issues that play out every day across on product development teams in our space.

Listen in to catch even more insights from Scott Rigby. Discover what he refers to as the continuum of motivation; see the distinction between motivation and manipulation; and grasp ways to put the theory into practice – not only by creating “a consensual language that everyone can understand, but also by providing a roadmap that invites customers and team members to follow the continuum of basic psychological needs.”

[04:35] The Copernican turn. We realized that who’s in orbit around what is completely changed.

[08:02] We humans have 3 basic psychological needs. Autonomy, Mastery, and Relatedness.

[08:12] Autonomy. I want to be the author of my life. It’s more than freedom, it’s about volition and it’s about engagement.

[09:23] Mastery. I need to feel a sense of growth in what I am doing.

[09:42] Relatedness. I don’t want to do this in isolation. I want what I do to matter to others.

[10:02] Self-determination theory – and people. We can quantifiably measure how autonomy, mastery, and relatedness are being experienced by employees in a company as they interact with  managers and coworkers.

[10:12] Self-determination theory – and product. We can see how those things are being satisfied by how products are designed…the informational feedback from user interfaces…user progression paths…and by how they are implemented in our program.

[10:29] Self-determination theory – and marketing. How are communications telling a narrative that make me feel like those needs are being satisfied?

[11:38] Manipulation and control. If we’re manipulating and controlling, ultimately, we’re undermining the delivery of those needs.

[13:25] The continuum of motivation. High-quality and low-quality; intrinsic and extrinsic.

[17:29] The problem with gamification.

[21:59] When we satisfy those needs. The consumer value for products, value for services, the loyalty that comes from that is astounding.

[29:20] The product of creativity + motivation. Yields an environment where facilitating basic human needs gives us the energy to create one’s own narrative and the confidence to know that I can do it in a way that is competent and masterful.

[35:28] Innovation. Innovation is the emergence of a new idea that has the ability to fundamentally improve well-being. Innovation is very much tied to that sense of well-being.

Sean [00:00:18] Hi, welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast, a podcast about how to use technology to solve challenging technology problems for your organization.

Paul [00:00:28] Hey, Sean. How’s it going?

Sean [00:00:29] Good, Paul.

Paul [00:00:30] I enjoyed this conversation so much. I can’t even begin to describe a single nugget that jumps out because the whole thing is just so great.

Sean [00:00:39] Self-determination theory has been near and dear to our hearts for a long, long time, and getting to tap into this man’s mind was a gift. I can’t wait to share it.

Paul [00:00:49] Yep, here we go. Scott Rigby.

Sean [00:00:50] Let’s get after it.

Paul [00:00:51] Let’s get after it.

Paul [00:00:55] Hello and welcome to the show. Today, we’re excited to be joined by Dr. Scott Rigby. He is the author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound. He’s a behavioral scientist and founder and CEO of Immersyve Inc. He is focusing on an application of behavioral science to organizations, products, and services. Scott and Immersyve work with both small and large companies on culture and the development of motivational best practices. He’s a leading authority on the predictive measurement on motivation and engagement, as well as on interventions to improve organizational culture. Clients include Prudential, Amazon, Warner Brothers, Johnson and Johnson, and Disney. Scott, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today. We’re excited to have you.

Scott [00:01:36] Yeah, it’s my great pleasure to be here, guys.

Paul [00:01:38] Welcome. Well just to jump right in, you began your career in behavioral psychology, but you’ve applied it in the product space, video games, fintech. And I want to jump right into this concept of motivation and I’ll let you run with it. We’ve understood from your work, from self-determination theory, that we don’t motivate people. People motivate themselves.

Scott [00:02:00] Yes.

Paul [00:02:01] How do you apply this in the product space?

Scott [00:02:03] Yeah, no, it’s a great question. And I think, you know, the first thing to talk about is that when I’m working with companies, when I’m doing motivational design, consulting, or training, this is sort of the starting place. This is the big shift in thinking. And it’s a little bit tricky because, you know, leaders, people are building things. We’re all out there doing stuff. We like to do stuff. We know we do stuff. We know we do stuff really well. And so when it comes to motivating the people around us and wanting to motivate customers, we want to lean in, put our hands in there, and be like, “what can I do to motivate people?” And we know also that most of the psychology around motivation, which comes out of the behavioral traditions of Skinner and back 50, 60 years ago, really gave us a language that was very much that motivation is something I do to you, right. “How do I motivate my team?” And then on the other side of the fence, motivation has always had kind of a one-dimensional feel to it. Motivation is like a hydraulic system. You can have more or less motivation. So whatever I can do to motivate you is good because I’ll get more of it.

Scott [00:03:03] And it turns out that that way of thinking, it’s not only that it’s not correct, it’s that you can’t get by with it anymore. You used to be able to get by with it, even until very recently you could get by with it because we lived in a world where, you know, companies and organizations and institutions, they were the ones that kind of had the power. You had to be in orbit around them and how they wanted to structure things. An example I use is, you know, I remember when I was a kid, I used to want to watch Happy Days. And if I wanted to watch Happy Days, I sure as heck better show up in front of the TV whenever Happy Days was on, seven-thirty Wednesday, whenever it was, I’d better show up. If I didn’t show up, I didn’t get to watch Happy Days. In other words, the TV networks and everything… And then I had to watch commercials, right. My nine-year-old daughter barely knows what commercials are, but we all had to watch commercials.

Scott [00:03:49] So the way it was structured, we had to be in orbit around the institution. If you look at any domain of life, you can talk about health care in the medical domain. It was the same thing. It was like, you’d go to the doctor, you’d sit in a waiting room, you’d read a four-month-old version of, you know, Highlights magazine. But you had a problem and you were just waiting for someone else to dispense wisdom, rather than what most people, well at least I do now, which is you go in with a half-inch thick folder of all the things you just looked up on, you know, all the scientific sites to figure out what your problem was. Like, you weren’t as much of a partner. And you can look at education and you can look at product development and you can see that what’s happened, quite powerfully in just the last 10 or 15 years, is that empowerment has shifted.

Scott [00:04:35] You know, sometimes we talk about it as being another what we call Copernican turn. It’s like we realized that who’s in orbit around what is completely changed. And organizations are now realizing, “man, I can’t make anybody be in my orbit; I’ve got to do the right things for them to select me into my orbit, and as a result of that, I have to understand, what’s really the thing that drives them to be motivated to make that choice?” Right. What are the fulfillments they get to help them make that choice? And so, you know, that’s one of the things that has sparked so much interesting work for us over the last, you know, 10, 15 years is as companies are realizing this in development of products and services and offerings, it’s sort of required them, even if they didn’t know exactly what they were asking for, it’s required him to get a better understanding of, what does the science say, what does the psychology say, about what brings people to make the choices, to pull things into their life based on that kind of intrinsic or more fulfilling value?

Paul [00:05:41] You know, it raises an interesting issue. It always has a double-edged sword aspect to it because we do have more data, more insight. We are aware of what users need. Sometimes we’re aware of the users’ needs before they’re aware of them because of the amount of data that we have. And we have to walk this line of, are we manipulating, are we compelling, people to do things that they want to do? Or are we actually allowing mastery, autonomy, and relatedness to exhibit in the ways that they interact with our goods and services?

Scott [00:06:15] Yeah. This is a really important point, Paul, because you’ve really just put your finger on what self-determination theory is about. So just to give a little bit of background, self-determination theory has sort of been parallel to this explosion of empowerment and this real shift in who gets to make the decisions. Self-determination theory has also grown over the last 10 to 15 years. It’s become, in a very exciting way, probably the most prominent of human motivation and behavior, but even related things such as well-being, health, it’s just fundamentally focused on two things. One, what are the things that we need in order to be fulfilled in life? What are the things that are going to accrue to our well-being and also accrue to what we call high-quality motivation, which is, “I’m going to be doing the things that I value, that have meaning, that I love.”.

Scott [00:07:04] When I say those words, we all know what they mean, like the idea that motivation is a singular thing that you have more or less of, we all know that’s wrong because we know that we want to be motivated out of the things that are fulfilling and meaningful, not out of the things that, on the other side of the fence, feel empty to us. We feel pushed, we feel controlled, we feel manipulated. That’s something that everybody intuitively understands. And by the way, I’ve never talked to anyone that didn’t agree with that point. Aspirationally, this is an easy thing to do. Aspirationally, it’s like, “yes, I want to put people first, you know, customer first.” Have you ever seen a mission statement that didn’t have some version of people first or customer first in the mission? Of course, you haven’t. Because we kind of know that that’s important as an aspiration. But the challenge is, “alright, how do I put it into practice? How do I create a consensual language around it that we all understand,” particularly when we’re talking about products or services or how to really grow these things in a way that’s scalable in our organization.

Scott [00:08:02] That’s what self-determination theory really does. It goes one further step, which is, it says, “here’s a roadmap to actually bringing that about in our customers or our employees,” by delineating very clearly what we call basic psychological needs. You alluded to them. Right, you’ve got three basic psychological needs: the need for autonomy, which I’m going to come back to in just a minute because it’s relevant to what you just said. Autonomy is that sense of, “I want to be the author of my life. I want to be doing things that I value, that I endorse.” A lot of times people think it’s about independence and freedom. And sure, when you have freedom, that creates a space for you to be able to be the author of your life. So freedom can be potentiating autonomy. But autonomy isn’t about freedom fundamentally. It’s about volition. It’s about engagement. And that’s a really important thing when you’re talking about work environments or product environments, because, you know, guess what? We’re all, and particularly, I’m assuming most of your listeners aren’t, you know, kids who are running around and playing. We’re all grown-ups. We don’t get to have a lot of choice over a lot of things we do. We don’t have a lot of freedom. We have responsibilities. We have things we need to do. You can behave in ways that are autonomous, even in those circumstances of structure or obligation if you endorse them. If you believe in them, if you see what the meaning is, right. And so that’s a need for autonomy. Mastery is our need to feel effective in what we’re doing.

Scott [00:09:25] And also, you know, we want to feel a sense of growth. We don’t just want to be good at something today. To use a game reference, we want to be leveling up, right, going to new levels of skill. And that interacts with autonomy because as we get new levels of skill, guess what, it opens up new opportunities to create our personal narrative. That’s how these things work in lockstep. And then, of course, the third one is relatedness or belonging. It’s like, we don’t want to be doing this in isolation. We want to be seen by others. We want to matter to others. We want to be connected to others in ways in which we can support and feel supported. So, again, as I’m saying those things, my bet is your listeners don’t have any problem with those things. Heads nod, “Yes, we understand those things,” but what’s great about self-determination theory is we can quantifiably measure how those things are being experienced by employees in a company and how they’re interacting with their managers and coworkers. In a product, and we work on probably 80 to 100 projects a year, you can look at how those things are being satisfied by, you know, how they’re designed. What’s the informational feedback from user interfaces? What are the progression paths? How are those things being implemented in our program? You can look at marketing. How are communications telling a narrative that make me feel like those needs are being satisfied? So when you have those things, you have something that’s really executable as a pathway to understanding how to build this kind of deeper, high-quality motivation.

Scott [00:10:46] Now, I have not forgotten your comment and I want to come back to it. This is the spiritual value of self-determination theory, and it is incredibly important in a technological time when we have power as technologists and in the development of our products to control people. And as a behavior like I just got to tell you, I get frustrated when we get lumped in with a lot of the other behavioral psychology kind of parlor tricks that are out there, right. “Well, here’s a little principle that can help nudge your customer this way,” or, “if you give them fear of missing out, you know, or you give them loss of version, they’re going to be more likely to take action because loss aversion has this higher impact…” You know, we kind of gather these little things and what we’re doing is we’re just getting a more sophisticated tool kit to be the ones in control.

Scott [00:11:38] And I will tell you two things. First of all, I am convinced by everything I’ve seen in my 25 years now, you know, out there doing business, building products, and my 30 years of doing this research. Scary to me that it’s been that much time, but, you know, that’s what it’s been, is that that is at best going to get you some kind of a short term gain at the cost of your long term success. Not to mention that you kind of sell your soul in the process because you’re essentially not doing what leads to the well-being of the very people that you depend upon, your employees and your customers. And so if we’re doing things because we get a benefit out of it and it’s a transactional little trick, we’re going to pay the cost. And I’ll connect it back to what I was saying before is, if you think about it, it’s because it violates our fundamental need for autonomy. If we’re manipulating and controlling, that is going to be something that is going to undermine that need. And by the way, there’s never been a case when a customer or employee or anybody, when they know that’s happening or when they catch that happening, is not disappointed, angry, sometimes even in rage. We’re seeing all kinds of big tech people being hauled in front of Congress. You see evidence of this everywhere and so we’ve got to get this right in the right way. We’ve got to be baking self-determination theory into our approach to everything.

Sean [00:12:59] Amazing. I don’t have much I can add to that. I do have a question, though. I think for the sake of my audience, you keep referring to high-quality motivation. We know it comes from self-determination theory.

Scott [00:13:08] Yes.

Sean [00:13:09] Which means that, by default, there is a version of low-quality motivation, which in your books and the research I’ve read on self-determination theory, basically refers to extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. So I’d like to hear from you how you define high quality versus low quality, what it means.

Scott [00:13:25] Yeah, sure. I love talking about that. Yeah, it’s a great question. I’ve talked about high-quality motivation and kind of given a gut feel for what it is. But again, there’s a lot of science behind this, right. And so really, this is coming out of work that has kind of systematically delineated a continuum of motivation from low-quality forms to high-quality forms. And the first thing to say is, a point I’ve made is that motivation is thought of as uni-dimensional, more or less. But it’s not; it’s multi-dimensional. There are multiple forms of motivation and those comprise this continuum. And at the low end, we have some of the things you mentioned, Sean, which are some forms of extrinsic motivation, but they’re primarily things in which I feel controlled or I feel like I’m acting not from a sense of myself, from the core of who I am, from my own personal values and interests, but I’m acting because you are making me act in some way. That could be because you’re manipulating me through a punishment, but mostly in the marketplace, it’s that you’re manipulating me through some kind of a reward, enticement. You’re dangling something in front of it in order to get me to act, right. Those forms of motivation, why we’ve been doing these for so long, because they work. If you do that to somebody, you will get a behavior, right. It’s not that behaviorism is wrong, that you put contingencies in front of people and they will behave. It’s that…

Sean [00:14:41] Taylorism, right.

Scott [00:14:42] Yeah. I mean, it’s just that it’s not understanding the deeper implications of doing those things. Now, there’s another form which is also very prevalent of bad quality motivation. And that’s, you know, the fancy kind of nerdy word for is intrajection. But a lot of times we just refer to it as internal pressure. Internal pressure is when there isn’t something explicitly out there, you know, trying to manipulate me. But I’m kind of manipulating myself. So where you see this is like, “ah, I really should do this. I’d feel guilty if I didn’t do this.” So I behave and it looks like it’s coming from inside me and it is coming from inside me, but it’s not coming from me. I’m shaking a finger at myself in some way. I’m feeling pressure in some way. That’s another low-quality form of motivation.

Scott [00:15:31] And we see this, you know, in a lot of different places. I think social networking and other types of products, like it definitely accrues this kind of motivation in a lot of places. When I feel, “oh, I see everyone else doing it, I’m obligated to do it, too.” There’s been some interesting studies recently. I think the Happiness Institute did one where if you just had people stop using Facebook, they’d get happier. Some of this is that social pressure, right, that’s causing that intrajection or low-quality form of motivation. Now, let me just say, does that mean Facebook is doing something bad or evil to people, you know, fundamentally in what they’re doing? And of course, there’s lots of areas to debate on that, right. But I just want to say that the idea of social networking, bringing people together so that they can share and do things, that is an awesome idea. Like there’s nothing about the fundamental premise of the technology. But this is the thing when you’re developing products is you’ve got to actually look at, what are the experiences that are happening in this level of detail in order to get a sense for where you’re starting to run into those problems.

Scott [00:16:34] So those are low-quality forms. And then the high-quality forms: the first is what we call personal value, right, sometimes we’ll call it identified. And what personal value means is that even if I don’t like the activity I’m doing, I value it. And, Sean, the reason this is important is personal value or identified motivation is actually a form of extrinsic motivation but it’s a high-quality form of motivation. And this is a really key point because this goes back to my point of there’s a lot of things that we have to do. When you’re dealing with employees at work, there’s a lot of things that they have to do. But if they personally value those things or even if they don’t like doing them, they personally value the outcomes from those. They understand that rationale, then, even though it’s an extrinsic motivation meaning they’re not motivated to do it for its own sake, that could still be a high-quality form of motivation, that personal value motivation.

Scott [00:17:29] This also comes up when we’re doing product design. We’ve worked on projects with Johnson and Johnson and others to do things from like the 7 Minute workout app all the way to things to help sustain engagement with post-surgery patients. And, you know, when you’re working in that health and medical field, there are a lot of very prescribed structured things that need to happen. And if you take the approach of, “well, we can’t tell them what to do, we need to give them freedom,” maybe you misunderstand it that way, “because we want them to be intrinsically motivated.” Guess what, nobody’s gonna be intrinsically motivated for knee rehabilitation. This is also, by the way, as an aside, why generally I hate gamification and all those kinds of approaches. Because gamification, the way it’s practiced, misses the entire point. When it tries to make things fun, it’s kind of disrespecting what they really are. But if you can build that rationale for them, you can build that personal value, even if it’s extrinsic motivation, it’ll be high quality.

Scott [00:18:26] And then, of course, the highest form of high-quality motivation is that intrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation is really simple to define. You’re doing the activity simply because you like doing the activity. You know, there’s no other reason. It’s not instrumental to some other outcome. It’s fun. It’s interesting. I just like doing it. And sure, you know, we should all, when we find the things in life that we have that for, we should try to get as much of that as we can. But it’s important to understand all the other forms of motivation, particularly the fact that you can have high-quality extrinsic motivation. Given that most of life, we’re not lucky enough to fall in that category.

Sean [00:19:03] So let’s talk about this concept of the sustainability of the motivation.

Scott [00:19:06] Yes.

Scott [00:19:07] And I’ve seen it written somewhere in the research around, like, extrinsic motivators, you have to keep doing them.

Scott [00:19:15] Yes.

Sean [00:19:15] Whereas intrinsic motivators, once this motivation is established, it tends to sustain itself more reliably than extrinsic motivators. So I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

Scott [00:19:25] Yeah. Well, that’s exactly right. And again, I’m going to be a little bit nerdy and talk about, like external versus extrinsic. Only because…

Sean [00:19:32] Sure.

Scott [00:19:33] I’ve talked about there being good and bad forms of extrinsic. So I’m going to just shift a little bit and let’s talk about external motivators, which are the things that are kind of outside of my personal interests. They’re things that are outside of my self if you will, and my personal interests and value. Those are things that, as you said, you can get people to move very quickly and powerfully using those. But you’re making a devil’s bargain in that because you’re doing a couple of things. First of all, communicating to the person implicitly that you don’t think there’s enough value in the activity itself so we have to layer something else on top of it. So right off the bat, you’re communicating something about value implicitly in what’s going on. If it’s worth my time if it’s worth my while, why are you dangling this, right?

Scott [00:20:18] Second, as I said, people are pretty attuned to feeling manipulated and controlled. People kind of know those things and we all chafe at that. Sometimes people ask, “well, that’s just an American thing, right? And it’s like, no it’s not just American. We’ve done this stuff around the world and people do not like to feel like they’re being controlled or manipulated. But there’s another thing that’s important here, which is the research actually shows that if you do that, if you give people these external enticements to do a thing, you might get them to behave in the short term, but you actually undermine any sense of intrinsic interest or value that they might have. So in other words, let’s say there is something that you want to get me to. You want to get me to exercise so you give me a Fitbit or some other device. I have a Fitbit on my arm, I’m a Fitbit customer. I love these devices, I actually have a tracking ring, things on all my hands because I’m sort of a nerd about this stuff so I use it a lot as an example.

Scott [00:21:14] But, you know, there’s a lot of things, when you understand this model, you can look at in product design and you can immediately see that this is going to be likely to be helpful for supporting basic needs and these things are going to be undermining. So, for example, when these devices are giving you what we call informational feedback that helps you understand something you couldn’t understand otherwise, that helps you see patterns you couldn’t see otherwise, that helps you learn about yourself, then it’s supporting my mastery. It’s helping me to make choices, to build a better personal narrative. It feels like it’s directly in support of those basic needs. All of that is awesome. And when I start to feel that, then, as you said, Sean, this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, right. I now have a relationship with that technology that I value more than anything else. Like when you satisfy these needs, that’s another important point is, you know, the consumer value for products, value for services, the loyalty that comes from that is astounding.

Scott [00:22:15] The alternative, though, is if I’m learning all these things and now you’re like, “you know what I’m going to do?” And by the way, this has actually happened, “I’m going to start layering in a lot of badges or other incentives for doing this.” So it’s like, you know, if you do this every day for 10 days, you’ll get exercise bucks or you’ll get a badge or you will get these other things. What happens is all the problems I just talked about occur, but something more insidious happens, which is you actually undermine and rob me of the value that I was getting out of it intrinsically. And once that’s done, it’s done. I mean, getting that back is extremely, extremely hard. You almost have to reboot the entire thing. And so we really try to work with companies to get them to not make those mistakes. They’re always well-intentioned and nobody’s trying to undermine anything. It’s just that you need to understand how this stuff works in this framework in order to be able to make those right decisions.

Paul [00:23:07] So I want to take this to an adjacent space. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you at least one question about video games. Towards the end of the book, you made two surprising statements to me that I had to read a couple of times before I appreciated. You said, “stop thinking about the content of the video games primarily,” and “stop thinking that people play video games for fun.”.

Scott [00:23:26] Yes.

Paul [00:23:26] And I think that translates back to the thread that we were just on. People don’t use products just for the sheer experience. They use them for the outcome. People don’t consume them just because of the high-quality content, they use or consume the experiences because it means something to them personally or it helps them accomplish something bigger than themselves. So as somebody who does spend a lot of time playing video games, I do have to ask, you know, is the learning that you’ve observed in the way that people play games meaningful to a product manager who’s trying to look for the next evolution of their content or the next feature that they’re trying to iterate. Could you maybe describe an example or two where you can say video games have been this exemplar of what a product manager does or thinks when they’re iterating?

Scott [00:24:14] Yeah, absolutely. So I kind of tore into gamification, but I was careful when I tore into gamification to say “gamification, as it’s commonly understood or practiced, is something that I sort of abhor and have a problem with.” And the reason I put it that way and qualified it that way is I think, again, the spirit of gamification was right in that everyone looked at good games, and I qualify it by saying good games because I think sometimes people oversimplify. We work with all the major game developers. There’s almost nothing harder to do than make a video game, in my opinion. It is staggeringly hard and most games are not successful. Just because you make a game doesn’t mean people are going to play it, right. I mean, it’s an incredible amount of work. It’s why we started in that area.

Scott [00:24:59] But good games have this ability to sustain engagement and attach. And the reason that they have that ability is because when you look at what’s happening for someone experientially, it’s not that fun is not happening. Fun is happening. But the very first study we did, and this is what sparked a lot of our work in this area, was as a gamer myself, I was looking at games, I was like, “Wow, look at all the sophistication this industry has, and they have zero sophistication in terms of their language or their tools around the psychology of the player,” despite creating all these rich experiences. Fun was the only word they had and so everything was fun. You need to find the fun, which struck me as weird. It’s like you’d build a game and then had to find the fun. That was a big phrase: “How do you find the fun?” It’s not that you’re not discovering things in a game, but it seemed like, you know, this isn’t sophisticated enough. And what we did was show that really, what was important to driving that sustained engagement and value and even fun was the need fulfillments of autonomy, of mastery, and of relatedness. And in fact, that if we look over time, fun does not predict sustained engagement with the game. No matter how much fun you’re having day one, because it’s a transient feeling, it’s more of those fulfillments, right.

Scott [00:26:09] So the answer to your question, there’s an amazing amount that we transfer over from our understanding of the motivational dynamics of games. We call it kind of our motivational design, but we don’t call it gamification because really it’s sort of almost reverse gamification. Like we already had a model for understanding what was important and fulfilling to people. We applied it to games, but because we were there, people were like, “oh, that’s gamification.” It’s like, no, it works because it’s basic psychology. But what games do are things like this: if I talk about need fulfillment, games can satisfy those needs with great immediacy, right. I can get informational feedback moment to moment in the interface and the design and whatever I’m doing. I can immediately be learning and growing. I get need fulfillment in a very dense way. It’s coming all the time. I see incremental progressions. I see multiple systems showing my growth. I see multiple systems showing my efficacy. I’m getting consistent feedback, right. I know once I’ve learned the patterns in games, I can get kind of consistent feedback.

Scott [00:27:10] So you’ve got immediacy, density, consistency. Now, those words don’t have a meaning unless you know what you’re being immediate, dense, and consistent about. But once you have that idea of basic need fulfillment, you can then understand, it unlocks, what are the great psychological motivational powers of good games. And there’s nothing about the principles I just talked about that are specific to games, which is, by the way, why I said it’s not so much the content and the graphics and everything else; it’s about understanding those systems. If anyone is paying attention, I’ve actually just given you the right gamification model, which is understand the basic needs, understand what games do well to fulfill them, and don’t take the appearances in games and the things sprinkled on the top that you can see on your screen. Take those fundamental dynamics and move them into your product or your service development. And I could spend two hours just talking about this, about RPG mechanics and this and that, how those all map over and how you can bring those into products, but that’s the general idea.

Sean [00:28:08] Did you just offer us two more hours of your time? That’s what I thought I just heard.

Scott [00:28:13] Yeah, it’s exciting stuff.

Sean [00:28:15] Yep. All right. This is fantastic. So I have a couple more questions for you. I don’t know that we’re gonna have time for it all. Here’s the most compelling question I’ve had kind of on my mind since you started talking here. Can you explain what you think is the relationship between creativity and intrinsic motivation? And the context here is, I believe that when you’re building a product, it’s not only important to think about the users of the product, but it’s also important to think about the team that’s building the product.

Scott [00:28:42] Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I’ve thought about this question a lot, Sean. I think that a lot of times in self-determination theory and when we do our work, we talk about the idea of facilitation. So we started out the conversation today by talking about thinking differently about who is the actor in the act of motivating a person, right. And it’s sort of the locus of causality for that shifting really to each of us individually. The challenge there is then, how as managers and leaders and team leaders, we have to do things, how do we then not have a language that still sounds like it’s ‘I’m the actor and I’m doing it to you?’ And so we kind of go to this language of facilitation, which is I want products and services. I want corporate cultures. I want relations with managers. I want them to all be about creating a space that facilitates need fulfillment, that is allowing individuals to let those natural basic needs and that intrinsic motivation to fulfill them, which is there in all of us, to just emerge, right. How do we create that fertile soil for that to happen?

Scott [00:29:48] And I see creativity in that same line. In addition, you know, self-determination theory, we’ve focused on basic needs and things like quality of motivation. There are lots of other related areas. There’s a related area of vitality, which has to do with that sense of useful energy and things that you’re bringing into situations. And we’ve seen that the facilitation of basic needs and the things we’ve talked about, you know, drives vitality up. We’ve done a lot of work in mindfulness and looking at people’s open receptivity to things. And we once again see that when you’re facilitating of those basic needs, that is a driver of mindfulness. And I think when you start to put these pieces on the board, what creativity emerges from, I think, is when you’re facilitating those basic needs and creating that opportunity space, the energy to create one’s own narrative and the confidence to know that I can do it in a way that’s competent and masterful and the feeling that I have support and belonging from all those around me, that creates kind of the auspicious conditions for natural creativity to emerge, right. And really that’s what it’s about it creating the auspicious conditions that facilitate the emergence of that. Because when you start to take those things off the board, when somebody is feeling pressured or unconnected or they’re feeling controlled, then their mind is naturally going to shut down and you’re going to impede those things. So that’s where I think that comes from.

Sean [00:31:11] All right. So you started to get interrelatedness, right? The belonging, the sense of community, and your role in that as a core need that people have to meet. So here’s a question for you: do you think that the goals are important? It’s like if your product is intended to move the needle on some sort of human behavior, the goal is to build some kind of relationship with that consumer. Do you think that that could play a role in building more relatedness on a team?

Scott [00:31:39] Give me an example of what that goal is.

Sean [00:31:41] If our goal is to build a product that generates advocates, we would measure them with some numeric metric. But the real goal, and the community we want to build it around, is this concept of really building a relationship with the consumer.

Scott [00:31:54] Yes.

Sean [00:31:54] And that, if we do that properly and we communicate it well, I believe it could have a big impact on the connectedness, the relatedness…

Scott [00:32:02] Yes.

Sean [00:32:03] …Of the team and the empathy that we build for the user or the consumer.

Scott [00:32:05] Yeah, well no, I think that’s right. And I think one of the things that we’re seeing a lot in the research is when you want to operationalize relatedness, we can measure and have been for a long time, as we can with all these things, how people are experiencing that sense of relatedness. But one of the interesting questions is, “OK, but tactically, how do I build that relatedness?” Whether it’s relatedness on the team or it’s relatedness with the customer? Like, what are the specific things that build that? And what’s sort of elegant is that one of the main drivers of people building that sense of relatedness, which, by the way, in the customer space is going to become advocacy, it is going to become loyalty, is by directly supporting their other basic needs. When you’re supporting their autonomy, when you’re supporting their competence and their mastery, relatedness naturally emerges as a measurable benefit to all the parties involved. And so then you’ve got to look at the context for, “all right, well, how do I do that?” And this is always the part that is where we always need to be creative is the principles that we’ve talked about are incredibly powerful for understanding the upstream framework and drivers. They’re measurable. They’re clear concepts that can build that consensual language. I’ve worked with teams over the years. They can learn them, they can apply them.

Scott [00:33:19] But how they express themselves or the best way to implement them or realize them, that is always a fresh problem to solve, right? Because the dynamics or the specific goals often are different in what you want to do. And so it may be, “look, we can’t give people a lot of choice. We can’t support their autonomy in X, Y, and Z ways, so how do we build relatedness?” That way it’s like, “well, there’s a whole menu of ways in which, given the context, we could support autonomy; it’s just we need to find the right formula for that.” So the needs always stay the same, but the strategies for how to move the needles are very particular to the context, as they should be. You know, I mean otherwise, by the way, I don’t have a very creative toolkit myself.

Scott [00:33:59] Just one other quick story. When we started to work with video game developers. I was pretty worried because this is a group of people that are amazingly talented. They have an incredible, strong vision. I mean, we get to work with all kinds of development teams, and I love it when I work with teams that have a great passion for the thing they’re doing. By and large, game teams just have that in spades. And so I was thinking, “well, we’re going to go in and talk to them about design? Like nerdy psychologists talk to them about design?” But what I realized is that there is nothing of anything we’ve talked about, and I do workshops for multiple days, I never tell anybody what to specifically design. “Make that button blue, because research shows people click on blue things more than red things.” There is that brand of behavioral psychology out there. As we’ve talked about, it’s something that’s uninteresting and even makes me angry for its manipulation. But these principles you can talk about and it empowers creativity. It doesn’t constrain or put a ruleset on it. So that’s really what our work is about, is how we can give people these principles in a way they can tuck them in their pocket, empower them to let their creativity kind of roll forth.

Paul [00:35:07] Well, Scott, I have a dozen other questions I want to ask you, but unfortunately, we’re coming up on the end of our time together. As we’re wrapping up, we always ask a few closing questions. And the first question that I want to pose to you as we wrap up our time together is, how do you define innovation? What is the definition of innovation to Scott Rigby?

Scott [00:35:28] I think innovation is the emergence of a new idea that has the ability to fundamentally improve well-being. Like for me, innovation is very much tied to that sense of well-being.

Sean [00:35:42] One of the best definitions I’ve heard yet. Last question: what are you reading these days? What’s motivating you and contributing to your mastery?

Scott [00:35:50] Yeah, I’m reading a ton these days. We need a new word for reading that isn’t listening because of like Audible and everything else. So, you know, on a personal level, I’m reading a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a Vietnamese monk. I’m very much into Buddhism and The Art of Living and others. Audible just released actually six hours of him actually teaching directly to audiences. So I’ve been listening to that. I’ve also been going back through and rereading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. I think that’s the most neutral thing that I could talk about in terms of politics right now. But I’ve been reading that. I’m trying to think what else I’ve been reading recently. Those are the two that I’m kind of alternating. But, oh, the other one that I’m reading is A Hidden Reality, which is by, boy I’m spacing on the author right now, but it’s on theoretical physics and integrating…. I know, I’m a huge nerd, guys. I really apologize.

Sean [00:36:47] You’re in good company here, believe it or not.

Scott [00:36:50] It’s actually The Elegant Universe, not Hidden Reality by Brian Greene. You know, you’ve got to make sure you have a good night’s sleep before you’re reading chapters of that. But what I love the most about theoretical physics is I love that we’re finding that there’s this relativity to things, that everything’s in motion. Everything depends on your perspective. Nothing’s really being created or destroyed. It’s all being transmuted. That, to me, feels like a universe with an incredible amount of potential and there’s just a natural resonance with a lot of the ideas we were talking about. And so, anyway, those are the three things that are currently on my Audible shortlist.

Paul [00:37:22] Amazing.

Scott [00:37:23] And then I read Stephen King to go to sleep, but uh…

Sean [00:37:26] I’ve read every one of his books. I started reading Stephen King when I was in the Navy years ago for entertainment.

Paul [00:37:31] Excellent.

Sean [00:37:31] I would interweave it with my learning stuff.

Paul [00:37:34] Well, thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights with us today. It has been a joy to get into some of these nooks and crannies with you. I’ve learned a ton. Thank you very much.

Scott [00:37:45] This has been a lot of fun, guys. It’s been a pleasure, thanks.

Paul [00:37:47] Absolutely.

Paul [00:37:51] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency in listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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