Self-determination theory: how to make your readers’ brains happy

31st October 2019
Author: Natasha Keary
Posted in: Psychology

You probably already know how much we like psychology at Turtl. We could go on about it for hours over a coffee or two. But today we’ll reign it in a little and introduce you to one of our all-time faves. 

It’s called the self-determination theory. It’s behind all we do and you absolutely need to know it if you want to create content which makes your reader’s brain pleased as punch. Let’s break it down.

Let's break this down gif

Intrinsic motivation or ‘we want to do things we like’

You wake up on a sunny Sunday morning. You have the whole day stretched out ahead of you. Maybe you’ll explore a new part of town, try out that new cafe, or take a relaxing walk with the kids/dog. There’s a spring in your step as you’re about to leave the house. Then, it hits you – today is the last day to do your taxes. You decide to take a walk first, and then come back and fill in your tax return later.  

Dog doing taxes

What are your motivations for making these decisions? There are two main forces which we experience daily at play here:

Intrinsic motivations
We’re intrinsically motivated to do things that make us feel good inside. Intrinsic motivations are behind things like exploring a new area or taking a walk with family.

External motivations
We’re externally motivated to do things we have to do but don’t necessarily want to. External motivations drive us to do things that have negative consequences if we avoid doing them, like filling out our taxes.  

Why does all of this matter?
It will come as no surprise that intrinsically motivating experiences are better for engagement, retention, and persistence. It turns out that we’re more likely to succeed at, and stick with, something we actively enjoy doing. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could figure out what makes intrinsically motivating experiences, well, motivating? Maybe then we could design our content experiences around the things which our brains enjoy…

Brain gif

Self-determination theory or ‘why we want to do things we like’

Result! Someone has already done the research and figured out the anatomy of intrinsic motivation. Thanks for all your hard work, Deci and Ryan 🍻.

These two geniuses concluded from their studies that every intrinsically motivating experience has three key components, namely:

1. Autonomy
We’re fans of being free. The ability to make our own decisions and follow our own path is important to our own fulfillment and enjoyment. Rather than be directed straight from point A to point B, we’d like to have a wander around at will and forge our own path.  

 2. Competence
We like to be challenged and engaged. Boring or bland experiences leave us in passive-brain mode and stressful situations put us off. The ideal middle ground is a challenging scenario that tests our competence in a constructive way and keeps our brain alert.

3. Connection
Being able to put ourselves into a task or personalize it gives us a buzz. If we don’t feel connected to content or an activity, we’re less likely to give it our time. Present us with an interactive quiz or some data to play with, however, and we’re happy to plug away to our heart’s content. 

Framing goals in an intrinsic way or ‘putting it all into practice’

We now know that: 

a) intrinsically motivating experiences are the goal, and;

b) autonomy, competence, and connection are the key to building these experiences

The only thing left to do is to put these components into practice. But what exactly does this all look like in action? In a word, interactivity. 

Interactive content hits the sweet spot for all three components. It lets readers forge their own path, test themselves and connect to the content they’re digesting. This means that they’re more likely to enjoy and feel good about what they’re reading. Here’s a chart which shows just that: 

Interactive content wins at effective buyer education. Why? Because readers are having a good time when they’re learning which, in turn, makes them more engaged and committed.  

Let’s talk about us…

At Turtl, we decided that the majority of online reading experiences out there weren’t ticking the autonomy, competence and connection boxes. Long-form blocks of text (we’re looking at you, PDF) don’t grant readers the ability to choose their own path, nor are they equipped with the challenges needed to wake brains up from a passive stupor. 

Turtl’s Surf and Immerse pages give readers the chance to navigate their own way through a piece of content. No more reading from top to bottom, plenty of skipping and diving into chapters at will. Plus, lots of interactive content to create nice brain challenges and bring the reader in. 

Thanks, self-determination theory – we owe you one.

Dog stroking cat