Observing children at play — specifically, self-directed play as an alternative to traditional education — is what first interested Regina Conti in studying intrinsic motivation and why it’s so often lacking in schools and workplaces. She recently coauthored a paper, “Resolving the paradox of work,” for the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Conti, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Colgate, was a Boston College undergraduate, working with research professor Peter Gray, when she encountered a play-based educational model at a private K–12 school in Framingham, Mass.

“Sudbury Valley School was an experiment in education that started in the 1960s,” Conti says. “The thought was that traditional education removed a lot of the natural motives that were most useful to a child’s learning. So, at Sudbury Valley, there are no grades, no requirements. Children learn by playing and basically doing what they want to do.”

The philosophy was so foreign to her own school experience that Conti was initially skeptical that graduates from Sudbury would find success as adults. She assisted on a research project that collected interviews from alumni who had completed kindergarten through 12th grade there.

“I was surprised and inspired to learn that graduates of Sudbury Valley do just fine without having to endure homework and standardized tests, as I did,” she says. “The study found that graduates pursued a wide range of interests, had successful careers, and were doing well in adult life.”

Students at Sudbury are almost entirely intrinsically motivated, meaning that for the most part they choose and engage in activities simply for interest and enjoyment, not because of any external demands. By contrast, traditional classrooms employ grades and other extrinsic motivators, often to force participation in prescribed activities that students would rather not do.

“Why do we use extrinsic motivation so much in our traditional schooling system when intrinsic motivation is more enjoyable, less pressuring, and less problematic in lots of ways?” asks Conti, who published her first paper on motivation in 1995. “I think it’s because extrinsic motivation works in a clear, predictable way, where with intrinsic motivation, it’s harder to predict what will make people excited and want to participate in a certain activity.”

Since the 1970s, multiple studies have sought to explain human motivation and predict which types of activities people will pursue intrinsically. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed flow theory, using “flow” to describe when a highly skilled person experiences deep engagement in a highly challenging activity. But his research also found that when those “high challenge-high skill situations” involved work, intrinsic motivation declined.

“Compared with active leisure, passive leisure, and social activity, work often presents what should be an ideal situation — one that’s highly challenging and where the person is also highly skilled,” Conti says. “Yet people report work as the least enjoyable domain; when they’re working, they’d rather be doing something else. Csikszentmihalyi called this the paradox of work.”

Conti joined colleagues Alan S. Waterman, of the College of New Jersey, and Seth J. Schwartz, then of Florida International University, in studying this paradox. The team’s research employed variables from flow theory and two other theories of motivation — self-determination theory and eudaimonic identity theory.

“In self-determination theory, the most important predictor of intrinsically motivated experience is autonomy or volition — in other words, your own desire to do something,” Conti says. “Eudaimonic identity theory, which Alan proposed, says that when we have opportunities for self-expression and developing our best potentials, we’re more likely to experience intrinsic motivation.”

For their study, Waterman, Schwartz, and Conti administered a questionnaire to representative undergraduates who were taking psychology courses at the researchers’ respective campuses — three samples totaling 673 students. Questions prompted students to identify five activities that most reflect who they are, then to rate those activities on scales measuring the predictors of intrinsic motivation from the three theories.

To gauge self-determination, students were asked how voluntarily they participate in each activity and to what extent they would rather spend that time differently. Students ranked how challenging each activity is and how skilled they are at it. For self-realization, they ranked how much the activity enables them to achieve goals and develop their own potential. Students also responded to specific questions about their level of interest and experiences of flow, self-expression, and enjoyment while engaged in each activity.

“We were able to replicate the paradox of work,” Conti says of the study’s findings. “Our data showed that productive activities or work activities were high on challenges and skills and high on self-realization values, but were low on self-determination and experiences of intrinsic motivation. But we also found that these predictor variables still predicted experiences of intrinsic motivation, that all three theories worked, and that they worked within every context — even within the domain of work.”

The paper brings theory into practice by recommending more opportunities for choice and customization in workplace and classroom activities, which increases intrinsic motivation among participants. For Conti, it’s a reminder of what she witnessed decades ago on the grounds of Sudbury Valley School: that freedom fosters motivation.

“From the employer’s or teacher’s perspective, we should give people opportunities to make something their own,” she says. “Even if we can’t do something 100 percent like they do at Sudbury Valley School, we can try to emphasize those things that we know help people experience intrinsic motivation. Whatever skills we’re trying to develop in students or employees, we can also point out ways in which those things are going to help them live their best lives.”