Mastery Motivation: A Foundation of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the ability to be motivated internally, without external reward.

Building intrinsic motivation in our children, autism or not, is a goal of all parents because without this force driving them, they will never achieve independence.

So, how do we help our children develop intrinsic motivation? One way is through Mastery Motivation.

As defined by Dr. Gutstein and Robert McCall (1995) mastery motivation is: The condition of experiencing moderate uncertainty about our ability to succeed is a crucial component to understanding mastery motivation. He points out that, if we perceive no uncertainty as to whether a goal can be attained or a problem can be solved, then there is nothing to master – it has already been mastered. Similarly, if there is no uncertainty because we believe that the goal cannot be attained, then we will not be motivated to attain the goal or engage with the problem.

When does Mastery Motivation Emerge?

Infants desire to engage with tasks that result in the experience of moderate uncertainty, therefore, mastery motivation is initially pursued exclusively through parent-infant engagements.

Those adaptations to the primary function and structure of the relationship needed to accommodate this new drive, are not planned or consciously recognized, but rather emerge out of the process of the relationship.

For example, parents’ primary focus and role gradually change from providing primarily regulatory experiences to framing ‘one step ahead’ challenges, inviting the child to engage with them and providing on-line scaffolding to make necessary adjustments ensuring that the child’s experience remains productive.

No mastery motivation occurs before the infant is able to distinguish between means and ends, which typically occurs between 8 and 12 months.

Related: Why RDI®️️ Emphasizes the Guiding Relationship

Mastery is Different than Competence

Competence consists of what one already knows how to do.  If that competence is invoked to attain a goal with no uncertainty, the behavior is motivated only by the desire for the goal, not at all by the challenge of obtaining it. Mastery motivation is not cognitive or behavioral competence. Competence is knowing how to do X.

Mastery motivation is the disposition to persistently attempt to obtain competence.

Competence is what you know; mastery motivation is the disposition to work to acquire what you don’t know.

Do you see! In order to perceive oneself as competent children must be able to experience uncertainty. Uncertainty builds motivation (because they want to continue to feel that way)!

Use the outline in the infographic below to help create the right amount of productive uncertainty in your next Guiding Engagement!

Click to enlarge infographic


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