More Direction but Less Freedom? How Task Rules Affect Intrinsic Motivation

Elizabeth R. Mutter, Zhenxu Liu, Peter M. Gollwitzer, Gabriele Oettingen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Task rules restrict freedom by definition, but do they necessarily harm intrinsic motivation?We examine how task rules for an open-ended writing activity affect intrinsic motivation, or enjoyment, with one’s sense of direction and psychological freedom as potential mechanisms. Results from three online experiments (Experiment 1, Experiments 3a and 3b; N= 1,176), conducted with both undergraduate student and adult (AmazonMTurk and Prolific) samples, suggest that task rules may indirectly increase enjoyment by enhancing direction (indirect effect: β’s range [0.09, 0.17], p’s<.05), yet at the same time, indirectly decrease enjoyment by reducing freedom(indirect effect: β’s range [−0.31,−0.07], p’s<.05). Results from a fourth online experiment (Experiment 2; student sample; N= 121) address a potential alternative explanation, finding that only the task rules, not mere examples, were sufficient to increase direction (rules present: d=0.55, p=.04; examples: d= 0.25, p=.48) and reduce freedom (rules present: d= 0.78, p<.001; examples: d= 0.22, p=.31). Theoretical and empirical connections are made to self-determination theory and flow theory. Further research is needed to delineate situational and personal factors that may moderate these effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1484-1501
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number5
StatePublished - Feb 6 2023


  • basic psychological need theory
  • intrinsic motivation
  • psychological freedom
  • rules
  • sense of direction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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