Academic and Life Domains: How We Are Motivated

by Andrew Weinert, Kenyon ’17

According to Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan at the University of Rochester, autonomous motivation is a major predictor of persistence and adherence and is very advantageous for deep-thinking tasks that involve a lot of processing (Deci & Ryan). In other words autonomous motivation is explicitly related to goal progress. Like autonomous motivation, specific personality traits are also a major predictor of goal setting and the attainment of these goals. For instance, someone very low in conscientiousness may not set a goal to clean his or her room because this does not complement the individual’s personality trait of low conscientiousness. Likewise, the goal of traveling the world would complement the personality trait of someone who is high in openness. Personality traits and autonomous motivation, however, do not necessarily need to be independent of one another.

For some, investing time and effort into academic domains can be a challenging bridge to cross when faced; for others, this is something that is simply not the case – academia is life for these individuals. For some, investing time and effort into the social life domain can be a struggle; for others, investing time and effort into their social life domain is something that literally takes up every second of every day. Vasalampi and her colleagues wanted to investigate how personality traits, along with autonomous motivation, predict time and effort invested into the domains of academics and of social life (the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness were the most significant and so were the main focus as it relates to personality traits in this study). For this research, there were mediated models, which included autonomous motivation acting as a mediator variable of either agreeableness or conscientiousness, along with independent effects models, which sought out to see the independent effects of autonomous motivation on academic and/or social life domains, the independent effects of agreeableness on academic and/or social life domains, and the independent effects of conscientiousness on academic and/or social life domains.

The researchers came out of the fray with three major results. The first being that personality traits (agreeableness and conscientiousness specifically) along with autonomous motivation were highly associated with the willingness to put forth time and effort to be successful in the domains of academia and the social life (Vasalampit et al.). The second finding was that the mediation effect of autonomous motivation when compared to the independent effects of the variables was relatively small (Vasalampit et al). The third and final major finding was that the predictive effects of personality traits along with autonomous motivation showed high domain specificity (Vasalampit et al). For example (not necessarily relating to this study), someone who is high in the personality trait of openness is someone others will predict spends time and effort traveling the world; the personality trait of openness is specific to the “domain” of travel.

When Vasalampi and her colleagues decided to take on this project, previous research had only considered the inter-relationship between different groups of personality variables, not traits and motivation. Personality trait and motivation research is something that has not progressed in the field. In the past, personality trait research has focused on domain-general predictors of behavior. The current research of traits, along with autonomous motivation, focuses on goals and how these two variables predict achievement of goals in specific life domains.

Regarding specific results, we will first begin with the academic domain. Since both traits and autonomous motivation (according to the results) were significant in the willingness to put forth effort in the academic domain, the findings showed that both were important in explaining the effect on academic outcomes. So, conscientiousness, agreeableness and autonomous motivation played a large role in the willingness to put forth time and effort in academics. However, conscientiousness and autonomous motivation, independent of one another, were more related to putting forth time and effort than was agreeableness.

Now we will look at the specific results as it relates to the social life domain. The results showed that agreeableness was a strong predictor of putting forth time and effort in the social life domain. The results also showed that conscientiousness was not correlated with the social life domain. Trait specificity is clearly something that is very important when discussing the social life domain. Along with these results, the researchers found that autonomous motivation was not related to a willingness to put forth effort at the social life domain level. This all means that goals in different domains of life tend to function at different levels.

Overall, this study was well done and reliable, and built upon previous research and came out with significant original results. There are, however, certain limitations to this study that absolutely does not invalidate the results found, but do need to be looked at. First of all, this study was correlational in design and so causal claims regarding results cannot be made. Another limitation was that the participants were all sampled from the same grade at the same academic institution. This can lead to multiple biases regarding answers to the personal survey-style questionnaires. For example, because the whole sample came from a secondary academic institution, all participants must be at least somewhat focused on achieving success in academia and so therefore might have given skewed answers to questions relating to school.

Researchers of the same capacity as Vasalampi and her colleagues (or even Vasalampi herself) may be looking to build upon these results in an experimental study to infer causality, along with conducting a study which does not acquire all its participants from the same age group and area, but with that said, these results are significant and can/should be taken into account in much research to come.


Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (n.d.). Facilitating Optimal Motivation And Psychological Well-being Across Life’s Domains. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 14-23. Retrieved April 15, 2015.

Vasalampi, K., Parker, P., Tolvanen, A., Lüdtke, O., Salmela-Aro, K., & Trautwein, U. (2014). Integration of personality constructs: The role of traits and motivation in the willingness to exert effort in academic and social life domains. Journal of Research in Personality, 48, 98-106.


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