Self-Undermining Rhetoric

In February I read an article that talked about involvement in social movements. Interestingly, people who could benefit most from policy or political change are often the least likely to get involved. Adam Seth Levine explained that often the messages on these issues focus on reminding folks of their dire personal, social or economic straits. That strategy is misguided because “political messages based on insecurity can backfire precisely because they remind people of their difficult circumstances. I call this self-undermining rhetoric — rhetoric that brings to mind considerations that undermine the very goals the rhetoric aims to achieve.”(Here’s a link to the article:

This got me thinking about the self-undermining rhetoric and “exercise is good for you” messages. I don’t get enough exercise. Often I feel guilty, knowing I should be doing more. Why don’t I make the time? Sometimes I feel a bit of envy, since exercisers have more endurance and less fat. How much better would I look and feel if I just exercised? What is holding me back? And how is this connected to learning?

Introjection v. Integration

Deci, Eghrari, Patrick & Leone (1994) define introjection as an “internalization in which the person “takes in” a value or regulatory process but does not identify with and accept it as his or her own. Instead, it becomes an inner control- a rule for action that is enforced by sanctions such as threats of guilt or promises of self-approval” (p.121).   They cite considerable evidence about the negative effects of this kind of inner controlling regulation: pressure, tension, and anxiety. Self-esteem is contingent upon external success. “One is behaving because one feels one has to and not because one wants to” (p.121).

This, I believe is the root of my longstanding issues with exercise. I don’t see myself as an exerciser/athlete. It’s not internalized. Guilt and self-approval aren’t great motivators, particularly for the long term behavioral change.  When I stare at the meter on the elliptical, I’m focusing more on the numbers and less, or not at all, on my qualitative improvement. Doesn’t this sound like students who are only focused on points and grades?

How about when I glance at the settings on neighboring treadmills or weight machines, and gauge my personal “success” by comparing to others? Each comparison leads to feeling like a “winner” or “loser,” which gets in the way of understanding and appreciating my growth and improvement. Similarly, when we report grade distributions and make cross-student comparisons, we increase the stress and pressure experienced by introjection-oriented students. The external comparison-as-motivation works as long as the student is a “winner.” This helps explain why one “bad” day on a diet often derails the entire quest to lose weight. Or, why a student who bombs a single test might never regain traction in a course. Introjection doesn’t foster lifelong exercise or learning.

In contrast, Deci, et al, define integration as the “internalization in which the person identifies with the value of an activity and accepts full responsibility for doing it… As such, one’s behavior emanates from one’s self; it is self-determined. One does the behavior wholly volitionally because of its utility or importance for one’s personal goals” (p.121). This suggests, that if I identified a meaningful, personal, exercise goal I would be more likely to stick with exercise that helps me achieve my objective.

What do these concepts suggest for teaching and learning? How can we promote student internalization in learning? Deci et al. make three recommendations:

  1. Provide a meaningful, personal rationale

We want students to attend class regularly. A strict attendance policy commands attendance. Instead, I share with my students some data showing the negative correlation between number of absences and exam scores. I also point out what topics were covered and when so that they can draw their own conclusions about absences, learning, and reaching their goals.

  1. Acknowledge the student’s perspective

This can be accomplished by expressing a bit of understanding about the difficulties of learning. “I know it’s a pain in the ‘you know what’ to work through these problems. But here’s why this is so important…” Acknowledging that learning is hard, awkward, and sometimes tedious provides context for students to help them stick with their efforts.

  1. Convey choice rather than control

When possible, allowing students choice of assignments, format, timing, and topic allows students to work from internalized motivation. When student choice is inappropriate, the teacher’s language can be framed to minimize pressure by avoiding words like “should,” and “must.”

I suspect some may read this and think, “What a bunch on touchy-feely nonsense! We are supposed to be preparing students for life after college. Their bosses won’t care about supportive language. The world doesn’t care if their motivation is internalized or introjected, just as long as the job gets done!” While there may be truth in that sentiment, times are changing. Firms and managers want employees who are self-directed and that stems from internalization, as this recent Forbes article attests: “Millennials want to volunteer together and feel connected through a shared passion for their company’s cause work, ideally through initiatives that help their surrounding community. Culture is everything; for Millennials, the company’s cause work must be integrated into its core mission.” (May 5, 2015.

Thus, helping workers internalize the organization’s mission and product or service value is good business. Similarly, doctors and policymakers who care about patient exercise and improving public health will be more effective if they focus on helping others identify meaningful, personal goals, instead of vague admonishments to “exercise more” for “better health.”

As a teacher, I want students to learn because they’ve developed an appreciation of learning. I want students to come to class and arrive prepared because they’ve discovered for themselves that doing so is important to achieving their learning goals, because they want to, not because they have to.  That means that they’ll need opportunities to do what I need to do about exercise: push aside self-undermining rhetoric and identify meaningful, personal goals we want to work toward.

Reference: Deci, E.L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B.C., Leone, D.R. 1994. Facilitating Internalization: The Self-Determination Theory Perspective. Journal of Personality, 62(1): 119-142.


About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on July 13, 2015, in Learning, Students and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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