Self Determination Theory-SDT-Dustin DiTommoso – Mad*Pow – HxRefactored – Health 2.0 – Behavior Model – Steph Habif – PERMA – Positive Psychology

The Most Advanced Understanding of How to Optimize Motivation, with Dustin DiTommaso

Self Determination Theory-SDT-Dustin DiTommoso - Mad*Pow - HxRefactored - Health 2.0 - Behavior Model - Steph Habif - PERMA - Positive Psychology


Self Determination Theory-SDT-Dustin DiTommoso - Mad*Pow - HxRefactored - Health 2.0 - Behavior Model - Steph Habif - PERMA - Positive Psychology

Dustin DiTommaso – (Source:

Where to you get the energy to do something hard or inconvenient? It matters because so much of what’s important in life comes from finding that strength. The topic of the discussion in this podcast is motivation, which can be described as the activation energy needed to do most-to-all volitional activities. Specifically, we’ll be discussing the leading behavior model of motivation called Self-Determination Theory. Like most complex subjects, motivation is NOT a monolithic entity, although it’s usually referred to as if it were. Rather, there are different types of motivation, and these different types have different affects on behavior. The good news is that with a greater understanding of the subject, you can better strategize when to use the specific types and, ultimately, how to use various the types together to stay engaged with something that is important but hard or inconvenient (like so much of health), long term.

Today’s guest is Dustin DiTommaso. He is an Adjunct Professor of Behavior Change Design at Rhode Island School of Design, and the Senior Vice President of Behavior Change Design at the design firm, Mad*Pow. His work involves the study and application of behavioral science, motivational psychology and human-computer interaction to the design of technology-assisted behavior change interventions and products. Dustin is a founding member of the U.S. Behavioral Science and Policy Association and sits on the Scientific Committee at University College London’s Centre for Behavior Change as well as the European Health Futures Forum.

Dustin does a beautiful job talking about the subject. Enjoy!

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Please see additional show notes below the transcript.


Dustin: Our job isn’t to motivate other people, it’s about creating the condition in which people can motivate themselves.
Kendall: humanOS. Learn, master, achieve.
Dan: Understanding the neuroscience and psychology of behavior is a little like a decoder ring that helps you identify all sorts of patterns that are present in your day to day world. On one hand, the subject can seem rather academic but on the other hand, it’s something that, once you gain some knowledge, it gives you superhuman powers that let you game the system to reach your goals. It gives you more potential to attain the things that you value. Today’s subject can literally benefit everyone who listens.


The subject of today’s talk is about the leading theory of motivation, it’s called self-determination theory. The theory aims to understand motivation by looking at three core categories of human needs. Physical, which is things like thirst, and hunger, and sex. Psychological, which is the desire to be competent in anything but particularly things that are important. Autonomy, which speaks to the notion that we like to have freedom to determine our own path. Social needs, which is the sense of belonging to a group, recognition from others, and even the sense of power in your own life.


[00:02:00] The big buckets that self-determination theory groups motivation into are sources of controlled motivation and sources of autonomous motivation. Let’s look at the two. Controlled motivations are things that try to ensure your compliance with things like rules. You get rewards if you do this well or you get punishment if you don’t. This bucket tries to leverage things like guilt and anxiety and even things like pride and ego fulfillment to get you to do something. It’s not to say that these types of motivations aren’t powerful, not at all. They do have a serious impact on being able to get you to do something or not. These types of motivations tend to lead to more fragile adherence.
On the other hand, autonomous motivation is when a person is compelled to do something because the activity takes on some personal importance or it becomes a part of the person’s belief system and it even becomes a part of the person’s identity. I spoke of this in my talk at the Ancestral Health Symposium and I’ll leave a link in this and the show notes.
Lastly, perhaps most important type of autonomous motivation is when a person falls in love with the activity for itself. For me, I love walking and hiking. I get real enjoyment out of doing it and I’m not doing it necessarily to reach 10,000 steps with my Fit Bit or because I know it’s good for me. I truly enjoy the activity and that, I think, is the ultimate. When you have a really complete umbrella that helps you feel really good abut doing it but it then also keeps you present with the activity in a world that tries to have you sit all day.
[00:03:00] Knowing more about this theory helps you get more stuff done. It can help you construct a framework that then helps you do the things that take effort and that can be a little bit hard. For instance, eating well in our modern world means that you regularly need to say no to certain foods that you probably know you like but you know aren’t good for you. Where do you get the strength to do that? This can help. I’m really excited to speak with an expert on the subject today. It’s a great interview and I think you’ll enjoy it. Without further ado, let’s begin.
Dustin DiTomasso, welcome friend. Let’s begin by learning more about you. Tell us where you work, and what you do, and how you got into doing what you’re doing now.
Dustin DiTommaso:


Hey Dan, thanks. Thanks for having me. I am a Senior Vice President of Behavior Change Design at Mad*Pow. What does that mean, exactly? Fancy title aside, what that means is we are an end-to-end experience design company. A collection of strategists, interaction designers, content people, developers, what you would normally think of in a design agency. My department focuses specifically on creating products, tools, services, interventions, that help people change their behaviors in, hopefully, positive ways. My team is made up of organizational psychologists, Master’s in Public Health, behavioral scientists, designers, and we look at designing those products with a variety of clients, industry, government, non-profit. Not only making those products but looking at evaluating interventions in the real world as well as working on research with academia to see what does work when it comes to the use of design and technology to help people change their behaviors.
I think you asked how I got there?
Dan: Please, tell us about that as well.
Dustin Ditommaso:


A slightly circuitous route. I got my start in MIT, a start up, and we had worked on creating technology-based immersive educational experiences. Again, more fancy words. We did a lot of learning products for kids using the web, using installations, and exams, and kiosks. Using a mix of technologies to help kids either learn something that is classroom style education but also more self-directed growth in arts and creativity. Things that would be done in a museum area to help kids learn about culture, and art, and things like that.
That idea of using design technology to affect behavior and to affect genuine behavior, helping people execute on things that they want to. Getting people interested, having them be active, having them be engaged, and having them have positive experiences is where I got my start. From there, I went to look at how can these kinds of principles and how can this idea of behavior, behavior change motivation be applied to things like health care, financial services, and other kinds of industry.


We met through a mutual friend, Steph Habif, who is a behavior design expert and faculty at the, or the Design School at Stanford. When I was heading to the Stanford Medicine X Conference she said, you have to meet up with my friend Dustin. Before we actually met, I had a chance to hear you speak and I have to say, I thought your presentation was really one of the best of the bunch. You were talking about the behavior model called self-determination theory. Afterward, we connected and geeked on behavior and how to apply it to change health behavior, specifically.
You were kind enough to invite me to a conference that you had organized with Health 2.0 called HxRefactored. It was all about health design and I’ll put a link to my presentation in the show notes, as well. I have to admit, I was super impressed by how a design firm who, you don’t always think of being subject matter experts, just how committed Mad*Pow is to the field of health. You guys were throwing your own conference on the subject. There’s a little bit more about how you and I met. Let’s get into self-determination theory. Tell us what it is, how we can better understand why we do what we do, and how we can even modify what we do by better understanding its principles.

Dustin DiTommaso:

Yeah. Self-determination theory is a theory forty years old on motivational psychology. It centers around the idea that motivation is an essence of our life. It’s a real thing, it’s an energy that directs and guides our behavior. There are different kinds or different qualities of motivation and that those qualities matter. In a nutshell, very much when people talk about motivation, anyone, whether it’s psychologists, whether it’s every person on the street, we think about motivation as being an amount, right? You want people to have more motivation for the things that you’re doing. When you think about behavior design, you may think about bypassing motivation or you may think about how do you increase that motivation? That’s one way, a unitary concept, to think about it.


What self-determination theory does, and it is definitely the most empirically validated theory of human motivation to date. There are literally hundreds of researchers and thousands and thousands of studies that have been done over the past forty years. This idea of motivational quality has a great impact on the quality of our behavior and the amount of our behavior. It says that there are two kinds. There are controlled motivations, doing things outside of the self. Things like trying to avoid punishment or trying to gain a reward. You may think of this as extrinsic motivation, another term that’s used. Also, there’s another kind of control which is doing things out of guilt, to avoid guilt and anxiety, or to reduce those pressures, or even to inflate your own ego or pride. This is another sense of controlled motivation and we want to help people move to autonomous motivation, or agentic motivation, things that we do because we enjoy it, because we take an interest in it, and because there’s inherent satisfaction in that. Things like games, and play, and socializing. These intrinsic motivators.
[00:10:00] There’s also another step in between those two, when we think about designing for behavior change in health, financial services, whatever that is. That is to help people find the personal importance or the conscious valuing within particular activities. If we think about many health behaviors, taking medication, running, eating properly, there may not be any intrinsic interest or enjoyment in those activities but they are important and they do have an effect on your overall health, your well-being. For design, if we want to think about not using only controlled or external motivation and not being able to use that intrinsic motivation. We want to help people process external motivation into identified, autonomous motivation. So they value the behavior, they tie it to their sense of self, it becomes part of their whole value set. That’s how you really get sustained, long-term behavior. External rewards, compliance, things like that can get you very short-term, single time behaviors but to get persistence and long-term maintenance, you need to help people find their own reasons, identify that, and tie that into their sense of self, this sense of autonomous motivation. That’s how you get to long-term sustained change.




As you know, I developed the Loop model to sustain health behaviors, which is the backbone or secret sauce of humanOS. Which, at this point in time, is not yet launched. Oh my gosh, soon, very excited. This model that I developed is looking at how an application can harness valid techniques to better enable a person to have clarity about what they’re after and how to do it. Basically, to put them in an enhanced state to live according to their own ideals or closer to it. To be frank, I think one common error that you see in a lot of health applications is they’re over-reach. The tool is trying to maybe do too much. No tool will be healthy for you, at least at this point, but it can help you help yourself. I think it’s really important to help people identify with something that first, has the potential to be effective and secondly, something that helps a person describe themselves with certain attributes.
When I heard you talk about self-determination theory, obviously, many of these ideas resonated and are included in what we’re trying to do. One example, if you take somebody who hikes. If this person is not hiking, it’s not like she’s avoiding doing her homework, it’s more that she’s not expressing who she is if she’s not hiking. Versus, hey, this is something that I need to do and I wish I had something that gave me some motivation to go for this hike. I really don’t want to but if I had a $5 gift card from my insurance provider, my company, then I would do it. That is a whole different situation.


Dustin DiTommaso:




Yeah. I think an example I often use is that idea of, when you think about identified versus integrated within your whole system. There’s that whole of chain, right? I’m running because someone is going to pay me to run. I’m running because I’ll feel super guilty that I don’t, because my friends are running, or someone told me I should run. My doctor told me I should. To, I’m running because I believe that this is going to help my health, to I am a runner. That difference is those folks who self-identify as runners are running no matter what kind of weather conditions, rain, snow, whatever that is. It’s hard to stop them because that is part of their sense of self. They are runners. Whereas, other kinds of motivation aren’t as persistent. Those kinds of external controls don’t predict the behavior as strongly as those autonomous types of motivation do.


Dustin, do rewards like, for example, if I walk 7,000 steps a day, on average, then I get $100 from my employer at the end of the quarter. Do these types of rewards work better for somebody who is just starting a behavior and maybe doesn’t have a lot of sources of motivation to call upon to get them going? Do rewards actually work better for somebody who has already internalized the value of the behavior into their self-concept?
Dustin DiTommaso: Folks love to talk about that piece, or pontificate on it. I think the way that that works, and there is definitely a bunch of research behind that, is that external rewards do have an effect on behavior. If the reward is strong enough or the punishment’s severe enough, you can get most anybody to do most anything. They work, they do affect behavior. What we’re looking at, and I think our responsibility, if you’re working in this industry, is to look at long-term and sustained change.
[00:14:00] The problem with those external rewards, regardless of where you are, is a couple things. When you start to use rewards in that work group thing, people will strive for that reward. I’m going to do the step challenge, get my American Express bonus from my company, and then they drop off. We see it time and time again. Once I’ve gotten that reward, the behaviors cease. They decline and they cease, number one. Number two, other things that happen in the behavioral economics model and the research there shows that once you get someone to do that for $100, they do it again for $100, $100 eventually starts to become less of a reward. The value goes down and it becomes less motivating to do the same thing. I now want $120, I now want $130. We see that so there’s another problem.
[00:15:00] The third problem is that, again, when we label these external rewards as controlling, we mean that in the sense that you are doing things outside of the [inaudible 00:14:40] but it doesn’t feel authentic. When you put people in situations or circumstances where their behaviors are controlled over a long period of time, not only does that stop working but, there are actually negative consequences. There are negative consequences on emotional health, on emotional well-being, on somatic symptoms, on physical health. There is actually measurable declines in overall well-being that occur when people are in these kinds of controlled motivations for long periods of time. There’s a host of reasons why they don’t work in the long-term, why they’re negative in the long-term. Also, we find, last point, that on either side, if someone is closer to that autonomous motivation or further, by using techniques, satisfying psychological needs is kinds of techniques, which I can talk about, if you like, that are beneficial, regardless of someone’s orientation. Regardless they’re orientated to external controls or if they’ve already found their own personal reasons. It still works better to not use those controls, in the long-term.


Okay, let’s talk about some of those techniques. I’m new to Instagram and I’ve noticed that in my feed, there is a lot of fitness oriented content that is served to me. A lot of it is people setting a personal record in the gym or showing off before and after pictures in a weight loss program. I worry about people who are mostly driven by some vanity measure, a personal record or how you look in or out of gym clothes. First of all, these sorts of things can distort the health behavior itself. We know that a lot of unhealthy things happen in the name of health. Second, what happens when you’re not at your best? A little bit of self-loathing can prompt a health behavior because the person is sick of being out of shape, let’s say. On the other hand, it can make people hate themselves and even have a negative relationship with something that is good for them because of this self-loathing and its associations.
[00:17:00] The psychological impact of doing something driven mostly by some sort of external motivation is powerful. So much of this is about ego fulfillment and it’s not like vanity is a new discovery but the omnipresence of social media can make a lot of people feel really bad about themselves. For either feeling like they don’t compare or feeling like they have nothing worthy to tell their friends, their social support group, because their current lifts are poor, by their own personal standards. This is something that has been in my consciousness for a little while because I’m seeing that this is guiding a lot of health behaviors, particularly for a lot of young people, but not exclusive to young people at all. I would love to hear more about some of the techniques that you like to employ to modify behaviors of people at different stages in their relationship with something.
Dustin DiTommaso:


I think that comment is also really relevant and, if you are talking about SDT, overall, it’s a theory that is built on multiple mini-theories. One of those mini-theories is something called Goal Contents which, very similar to the motivation that I talked about, is that there are measured effects on behavior, on persistence, on predictability, and on a host of well-being measures that revolve around is the actual contents of what someone’s goal is, do they map to internal or intrinsic reasons or external? If you think about health, for example, image. Body image, physical attraction, looking good, while we would say for many folks that is a strong motivator in certain cases, in many cases, it isn’t.
Health is an intrinsic goal content. Being healthy, feeling healthy, being free of illness, being fit is a different quality of motivation than physical attraction and looking good. Those would be more external to the self. There are different reasons we would do that. Those kinds of goal contents, and if you’re using a lot of photos or it’s only that messaging, then yeah, it would be no surprise that you see many kinds of yo-yo-ing effects and things like that if you’re not also trying to build that internalization.


I think that’s a really important message. It’s not that external motivations themselves are bad, it’s just risky, perhaps, when there’s an over-emphasis or a disproportionate emphasis on them to guide what a person does. I encourage people to get into their body when they train. Do you have enough self-awareness to give your body what it needs at the right time? Health is a marathon, not a sprint, and this is something I worry about for a lot of former athletes, for instance. Many of us grow up playing sports and if those sports were competitive, you were trained to go hard all the time.
[00:20:00] On one hand, that mentality of being able to dig deep, grit, if you will, is good to develop. A negative consequence of this, though, is that many have to re-learn that being physically active is this life-long mission. The best way to encourage that required consistency is for the person to develop an absolute love for that activity. It’s harder to love something when you don’t really trust yourself to hold back when it’s best for your body and to give yourself what you need. How could I nurture this positive feeling of being active or doing anything healthy, really? Ultimately, it means having a more mature, dynamic, autonomous relationship with how you guide the activities you do and how you go.
Dustin DiTommaso: Yeah. That all makes tons of sense. I’m with you on all that, totally. Two things, one, I would say over-arching, and I think this even ties into what you just said, is when we think about motivating others, it’s not so much that our own framing and whatever techniques that we’re using, our job isn’t to motivate other people, it’s about creating the condition in which people can motivate themselves. I think that’s a really important way to think about what anyone who’s in the position of trying to help other people do things or trying to get other people to do things. If you want to say it that way.


That idea of creating the conditions in which people can motivate themselves, within an SDT context, when we talk about motivation, and energy, and internal autonomous motivation. We say that the things that afford that internalization, that help people to act in an unauthentic way revolve around a few key psychological needs that we all have. Those are the need for autonomy or feeling like you are in control of your own behaviors. We talked about that earlier. The idea of competence, which is feeling personal growth or mastery over your environment and the things you do. And, a feeling of relatedness, which is feeling cared for and caring for other people within our social context. These needs, when we fulfill them, we thrive, we act in an autonomous manner, our energy, our vitality is high. When these things are thwarted or not met, we see a lot of maladaptive behaviors, in well-being and psychological well-being, and things like that. When we think about supporting these needs or creating the conditions that can support autonomy, that can support competence, that can support relatedness. You can start to see how you may apply those in, say, design contexts, or intervention contexts.
Really, I’ll go briefly, feel free to stop me or to dive in, but if you think about supporting autonomy, that’s all about taking that other person’s perspective, trying to get into the shoes of your client, your user, whoever you are in service of, if I may say it that way. Getting into their shoes, understanding their contexts, their reasons for behaving or not behaving, providing choice, encouraging them to follow through on their own interests and providing options. If you’re losing weight, if that’s a goal, would you want to do that through physical activity, through diet, through a band? Whatever that may be, where do you want to start, if at all? What are those options for you that you might be interested in. Taking their perspectives, feeling agenda into that, as well.


Thinking about that competence, providing structure or support for them to feel the maximum sense of mastery. Setting realistic goals and expectations so that these things are reachable and you’re not frustrating people by setting them up to fail from the beginning. Also not failing, creating this sense of optimal challenge so that things aren’t too easy, where you get bored and your level of motivation or engagement drops out. Not too hard where you get frustrated and drop out. It’s a very delicate balance of optimal challenge. How do we do this?


We can do this through feedback, through understanding where somebody is and providing relevant informational feedback on their goals, on their progress. Doing that in a non-judgmental manner. Just being very informative about where you are, where your goals are, and how you might get to those goals, how you may overcome barriers. Helping overcome those barriers, building skills, training to help people reach their goals, and doing this in a way that supports this sense of relatedness. That has empathy and even compassion for the other person. Whether that’s through software, whether that’s through one-on-one, whether that’s through social marketing messaging. Whatever this is, having a sense of empathy, a sense of compassion, and really understanding the language, the tone, the way in which people want to interact with you. It’s this sense of not quite following them, not quite leading them, but somewhere in the middle. It’s this dynamic sense of being in tune or attuned, even, with the folks that you’re designing for and/or working with.
Dan: Dustin, is it a part of the relatedness bucket of innate human needs to be motivated to do something in order to better serve your responsibilities with those around you? For example, I go to the gym so that I can be the best father I can be to my son.
Dustin DiTommoso:


Absolutely. There’s that intrinsic sense of doing things for myself or doing things for the people that are around me that I love. Either one is me, one is others, those are both very innate, intrinsic needs. If you can tap into helping people find or satisfy their sense of relatedness through activities with other people or for other people, in service of other people, yeah, that is a very fine and genuine way to engage people in behavior change. Also to sustain that change. Those are absolutely handles that you can help people hang onto.
Dan: While you speak, I’m being reminded of the book Flourish by Martin Seligman. Have you read that book?
Dustin DiTommaso: I sure have, yeah.


If you haven’t read the book, it’s a theory about what factors make humans happy and satisfied with life. It’s based off of the Positive Psychology movement. Instead of just using science to understand the mind when things go wrong, can we use the scientific method to understand the mind around what makes us happy? In the book, Seligman discusses the concept of PERMA, which is an acronym for Positive Emotions, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning to One’s Life, and Accomplishment. PERMA is different than Self-Determination Theory but there seems to be a lot of core truths that overlap between the two.
How do you create flow states in people? Can you create these adaptive challenges that are neither too hard nor too boring? You basically keep a person within their competency level but you’re also advancing their abilities. How do you create meaning and, like we were just talking about, relatedness? How can I be of service to others that I care for in my life? Similar to Self-Determination Theory, I think applying the principles of PERMA allows you to harness these multi-motivational resources that ultimately help you crave living in a way that is deeply satisfying. Hopefully then, in our context, very healthy.
Dustin DiTommaso:



Yeah, tying into your values, which is right there in that sense of integrated motivation, there’s absolutely a lot of overlap between the Positive Psychology movement and SDT, in the motivational psychology sense. Researchers, like Seligman, like [inaudible 00:27:01] and others, Richard Ryan, the founder of SDT, he’s actually at the Positive Psychology Center in Australia, now. There is a ton of overlap in those goals of how can we help individuals, groups, populations live satisfying psychologically well-being lives. What does it mean and what are the things we need to do to afford that is an agenda for both those groups. There’s a lot of overlap there.
Dan: Yeah. If you’re applying Self-Determination Theory to your own health practice and are aware of the principles of PERMA and actively trying to use those principles to shape how you live and what gets priority status in your world, it’s a pretty nice formula to understand where you can put your time and effort to generate satisfaction. A set of tools and even aspirations that help you generate the energy, the motivation to find and stay on a good path.
[00:28:00] I do what I do largely based on a lot of the ideas that we’re discussing. I see my work with humanOS as a way to be of service to others, to make a contribution, to help people I will probably never meet in ways I will never know. I derive a great deal of satisfaction and motivation from my work and I know that a certain understanding of Self-Determination Theory and PERMA has helped me to get to this place where there’s plenty of fuel in the tank for what I do.
Quite honestly, it’s a really challenging job. My problem is not lamenting that there’s lots of work to be done. My problem is overworking. I don’t say that as some sort of humble brag but it’s true. I’m so motivated to be of service to this mission of helping folks, I sometimes need to recognize that the best thing for me to do is to step away for a bit and just go do other things. It’s a nice problem to have but it’s a real problem if I let it get out of hand. I think that all of this speaks to the power of these tools to really add fuel to your life.

Dustin DiTommaso:


Yeah. I would say you are at a very high rate of having those needs met through what you’re doing. Sounds that way to me, for sure

Dan: Well, Dustin, I feel like I typically do when we speak, which is there’s so much more I’d like to discuss but we’ll have to save more for another time. I want to thank you for taking a chunk out of your busy day to chat with me and discuss Self-Determination Theory. I know our listeners will better understand this model that really applies to anything we want to achieve in our lives. Being it that this is a health-oriented radio show, we focus more on the topics that relate to the field of health attainment but clearly it’s utility of Self-Determination Theory is broader than just health alone.
[00:30:00] A while back I came up with this short phrase saying that health is one part effective paradigm and two parts effective behavioral integration of that paradigm. It’s just not simply enough to know what to do in order to be healthy. You definitely benefit when you understand the factors that shape our behavior and how to harness that knowledge in order to get to where you really want to be. Educating us on this is highly valuable and thank you so much for coming onto the show
Dustin DiTommaso: Yeah, thanks so much. Thank you for having me, it was a blast.
Kendall: Thanks for listening and come visit us soon at



Dan’s HxRefactored Presentation (20 min)


Dan’s behavior change presentation from the Ancestral Health Symposium