Theory of Self Determination and Christianity

One of the joys of being an academic is reading in a wide range of research literatures and learning from them. Yesterday I was reading about the Self-Determination Theory. It’s a theory of human motivation, and it holds that humans have three general needs that they must meet for optimal function and growth: relatedness, autonomy, and competency.

Relatedness is being connected to others. Autonomy isn’t being independent of others, rather it’s “being a causal agent” in one’s own life. Competency is being able to control outcomes and express mastery.

This got me to thinking about how this theory maps on to the prescriptions of Christianity, and if this gives insight into the functionality (at least at the individual-level) of the faith.

Clearly Christianity fosters connectedness, both to other people and to God. At its core it teaches love for others and for God, and the faith is structured in various levels of groupings–from small groups to denominations.

Autonomy takes a specific guise. In one sense, Christianity promises freedom–from a sinful nature. In another, however, it’s about dependence and reliance on God and others.

Competency is less straightforward. There are verses that put forth the need to work hard to get what you want (thinking sluggards vs. the diligent in proverbs).  But, by and large, I don’t think that it teaches a lot about being competent (unless I’m missing something. Which, if so, I suppose calls into question my own competency). Instead the Bible seems to emphasize the competency (or ability to make things happen) of God, and so, perhaps that becomes competency for us as we tap into it via prayer and following Him.

I’m not sure that I would push this analysis too far, but it does give a different perspective for the ways that Christianity promotes functioning and growth.

Mastery Goals and Working Out Our Salvation

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals is a wonderfully interesting book by Heidi Grant Halvorson. A social psychologist, she summarizes the social psychological literature on goal setting with an eye toward applying it to day-to-day life.

Grant Halvorson distinguishes between “performance” goals and “mastery” goals. Performance goals are goals in which we prove our abilities in an area, for example getting an “A” in class or running a marathon in a given time. These goals tend to be tied to our sense of self-worth and they have an all-or-nothing quality, for either you accomplish them or you don’t.

It turns out that this type of goal—which up until now has characterized the most of my own personal goals—works well with activities that aren’t too difficult or complex, but when things get difficult, people may conclude that they don’t have the ability to meet the goal and give up. Presumably most New Year’s resolutions are cast as performance goals, which might explain their common futility.

In contrast are mastery goals. Here the goal is stated in terms of developing skills or ability. For example, a student might set a goal of constantly improving in their courses or a runner might aim to always run faster. This type of goal puts the focus on cultivating progress, rather than expressing existing competence, and this offers a distinctive advantage in tough times. Namely, with these types of goals, people explain difficulties in obtaining goals more as a lack of effort, rather than innate inability, and so they are more included to work hard when they meet obstacles. So, mastery goals provide resilience, and, in addition, they have been found to lessen depression.

So, in Grant Halvorson’s terms, “the bottom line is, whenever possible, turn your goals from being good to getting better”… focus on expanding your skills and taking on new challenges.”

This finding has many implications, and over the coming weeks I will be reframing my own goals to focus on mastery (though I do wonder if combining performance and mastery goals is even better).

It’s interesting the ways that this distinction plays upon spiritual matters. For example, “progress not perfection” is a cornerstone belief of twelve-step programs, a mindset that might help explain their effectiveness, for the person in recovery faces no end of difficulties.

Also, there is “mastery” language in the Bible. Philippians 2:12 writes “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” a verse that speaks of the progress and development nature of salvation.


Any thoughts about other implications of mastery goals?

What is “Positive” Sociology?

Last week, Margarita has a very interesting post about positive psychology and it’s implications for sociology.

For some time now, I’ve been wondering about what it would look like to focus on the positive in social life and how to attain it. In other words, is there a sociological corollary to positive psychology?

Let’s start with something simple, what would such a study be called? It might be awkward to call it positive sociology because that’s awfully close to positivism. Furthermore, sociology covers so much ground that it’s unclear how we translate it into a single, positively focused endeavor for some of us who are looking for something other than social problems.

Maybe the sociology of well-being? Of a good life? Of highly-functioning groups and organizations? Maybe the sociology of the-opposite-of-social-problems?

Any thoughts?

Map of Religious Diversity in America

Yet another interesting map from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. This gets at how varied, or diverse, religious affiliation is in different regions of the country. As you can see, the areas with the most diversity also tend to have the lowest rates of adherence, which would seem counter-intuitive–at least from the perspective of Rational Choice theory. One might expect that more offerings, i.e., more types of religions, would promote greater involvement in religion.