Are you an Autotelic Person? [Test yourself]

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“The motivation to do a task comes from the satisfaction of getting to do the task.” If this is relatable, chances are you have the autotelic personality trait.

If someone asked you – “Where is the motivation to do this coming from?” You say, “From within!”

Who is autotelic?

People who work for a cause without money, people who start challenging hobbies for the fun of it, those who learn new skills for the joy of it, and those who don’t need too many reasons to start something are autotelic in some capacity.

Autotelic people have high self-motivation and enjoy doing things for the sake of doing them instead of external rewards and recognition. It’s not that they don’t value external rewards like money and recognition; they do… like most others. But, this is just the intrinsic motivation component of the autotelic personality trait. We’ll explore other components.

Your interests, motivations, daily engagement, curiosity, sense of purpose, and capacity to seek out new challenges and perform in the absence of rewards are described as a personality trait called “autotelic” personality. Autotelic comes from Greek origins: “auto” meaning self, and “telo” meaning end or goal. Together it means a person who has a purpose in itself. Or simply, a person who finds purpose in any action in the process of doing that action.

The original observation made by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi[1] is that some people with specific traits are more likely to experience the flow state – deep engagement with a challenging task and feeling satisfied doing it without rewards. It’s an “optimal state of experience.” This state correlates with professional and personal life satisfaction. So, researchers dug more and more to find out where it comes from – the source: autotelic behavior.

These people had an innate higher level of intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and excitement about seeking out challenges. They were generally quite resilient and handled stress/boredom well. The presence of external rewards did not guide their behavior as much as it did for most other people.

The test

Personality researchers Dwight C. K. Tse, Vienne Wing-yan Lau, Rachael Perlman, and Michael McLaughlin[2] developed a 26-question test to identify the autotelic personality trait. Theirs is a printed version, so I’ll present a digital version below. The results show your overall level of autotelic behavior across 7 components of the autotelic personality.

Instructions: The following statements describe how you might perceive yourself. As every individual is unique, you may find some of the statements describe you well and some of them don’t.

Please express the extent to which you disagree or agree with each statement by selecting a number from 1 to 5.

1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neutral, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree

1. I am curious about the world.

2. I worry about how people view me.

3. I am good at finishing projects.

4. I would choose a job that I enjoy over a job that pays more.

5. I enjoy playing difficult games.

6. I have fun doing things that others say are boring.

7. I find it hard to choose where my attention goes.

8. I actively seek all the information I can about a new situation.

9. When a task becomes difficult, I keep going until I complete it.

10. I worry about being laughed at.

11. It’s more important for me to enjoy my job than to earn a lot of money.

12. I quickly get bored with the same routine.

13. I look for new things to learn.

14. Challenges excite me.

15. I like to explore new places.

16. I often look for new hobbies.

17.When I am really involved in something, I forget about everything else.

18. I prefer jobs that allow me to dive deep into one thing.

19. I enjoy solving complex problems.

20. Repetitive tasks can be enjoyable.

21. It is hard for me to stay on task.

22. Curiosity is the driving force behind much of what I do.

23. I keep working on a problem until I solve it.

24. I am afraid of making the wrong impression.

25. What matters most to me is enjoying the things I do.

26. I make games out of chores.

Scoring: Range: 26 to 130, Low: 26-60 Medium: 61-96 High: 97-130 (rough estimate: 50% of the population will score medium)

How autotelic people behave

DemographicHigh autotelic personalityLow autotelic personality
School childrenMotivated to do things on their ownNeeds external motivation like marks, rewards, and praise to stay motivated
Finds joy in learning without marks as the end goalFrequently questions the purpose of doing something if there are no rewards
Enjoys many learning activities and challengesNeeds to find good reasons to learn and study
Working adultsHighly proactive and energeticDo only what they are told to
Push boundaries and improve their outputCan be highly skilled and productive, but don’t push boundaries without incentives
Feel their organization’s mission is their ownOften settle in a career without striving for growth
Retired adultsExplore new hobbiesExperience an identity crisis after work stops for many years
Find joy in mundane activities without worrying about status and past achievementsTake pleasure in doing nothing after long years of earning money
Stay mentally engagedSuccumb to boredom and become passive

7 components of autotelic personality

  1. Curiosity: They explore and seek more information purely out of interest and enjoy doing so.
  2. Persistence: They have a strong desire to achieve and build skills, and endure difficulties. They tend to be resilient and manage the stress of achievement.
  3. Low self-centeredness: They focus very little on their own thoughts and feelings and tend to be less narcissistic. This also means they are less likely to feel embarrassed or ashamed if they show silly/odd behavior in public.
  4. Self-motivation: They are self-motivated (high intrinsic motivation) for many things that most others do only when they are sufficiently incentivized. They show an innate passion for doing something.
  5. Enjoyment and transformation of challenges: They see challenges as enjoyable situations instead of threats and acquire skills to overcome them. They also seek challenges and get a pleasurable “kick” out of overcoming them.
  6. Enjoyment and transformation of boredom: They seek stimulation or find ways to make boring tasks enjoyable. (I call this self-gamification)
  7. Attentional control: They show a high ability to concentrate and rapidly switch attention from one thing to another and not lose track.

Are you born autotelic or is it in your upbringing?

Like most things about human behavior, a combination of 3 factors affect autotelic tendencies: Environment, Genes, and Choice.

Personality traits are sufficiently stable through the lifespan, but they do change automatically[3] and based on lifestyle choices, what you learn, the environment you are in, etc.[4]

Being autotelic is an overall tendency, not a fixed trait. It is also context-dependent and likely to change over time.

A tricky area is how a person can be autotelic in one phase of life and then lose that trait. One mechanism for this is motivational crowding out[5]. It says that a person who gets bombarded with rewards or is asked to seek rewards for a task they love doing will eventually lose the intrinsic motivation to do the task. In other words, external rewards start undermining intrinsic motivation. This often happens with artists and musicians[6] who first do it for the joy of it and then lose motivation to do their art when they become professionals and seek money and recognition.

There is no evidence yet that parenting styles[7] determine if children grow up to be autotelic or not, but it is expected to be there. The factors that shape it are not explored enough. There is a possibility that a very small component that doesn’t fit into any particular parenting style might nudge children toward autotelia. The best guess so far is it’s a complex mixture of genetic tendencies, environmental circumstances, specific cultural aspects, and specific learning experiences.

This personality trait is popularly called the “flow personality” because those who show autotelic tendencies experience more flow states. One twin comparison study on 10,000 individual twins[8] in Sweden found evidence that moderately inheritable[9] and early childhood experience-based personality traits[10] like conscientiousness and emotional stability correlate with more flow experiences.

Conscientiousness is seen as the tendency to be organized, mindful, disciplined, and meticulous. Emotional stability is seen as a tendency to have low emotional disturbances, fewer emotional explosions, and fewer lingering negative emotions.

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So, based on the 2 studies cited in the previous para, an unstable and insecure childhood tends to make people more neurotic (emotionally unstable) in the future and secure childhoods tend to make people more conscientious in the future. But both of these tendencies can also emerge through genetics or not emerge through other circumstances.

Can you learn to be autotelic?

Explore and commit: We’ve seen autotelic behavior is not a purely genetic or early childhood gift. Behavior can be learned and acquired, so it’s possible to become more autotelic (or less) if you choose to. The overall theme is this – if you spend a lot of time discovering what you love and commit to doing it, you might develop a habit and appreciation for doing things for the joy of it. You’ll be more likely to find opportunities through curiosity that keep you engaged. But, for this to happen, you might need opportunities that require financial stability.

Self-gamification: Self-gamification is another way – if you assign yourself rewards for doing things that already bring you external rewards, you re-allocate motivation. It moves from external rewards to self-chosen rewards. Even in the case of boredom, focusing on things you previously didn’t appreciate or multi-tasking to make things fun can make boring things enjoyable – a classic experience of autotelic people. (click for inspiration)

For example, if you work at a company that needs you to make a dozen presentations a week and you hate it, you can assign yourself a binge-watching allowance the day you complete 2. This way, instead of being motivated only by your paycheck, you are motivated partially by your self-reward of binge-watching. This converts a portion of your extrinsic motivation to intrinsic, simply because you chose your rewards based on your liking. This reduces the dependence on extrinsic rewards for motivation. Over time, self-gamification can nudge you to find more motivation from within.

Self-narratives: Finally, any task you do can have a narrative around it. Writing presentations for a paycheck? Or writing ppts to make you an apex presenter? The story you tell yourself about your tasks can show you what you can enjoy and love about your task. This increases the likelihood of finding purpose and rewards within your tasks. If the story you tell yourself about the things you do is cool and excites you, chances are you will show autotelic tendencies.

P.S. Test questions do not belong to Cognition Today and belong to whoever is implicated in their paper[11]. It is recreated here for educational & entertainment purposes only.

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