Conceptualizing motivational pathways to political engagement: A test of self-determination theory in the political domain

Wuttke, A.: “Conceptualizing motivational pathways to political engagement: A test of self-determination theory in the political domain”


Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München


July 2020


Why do citizens engage with politics and how can we systemize the various motivational pathways to political engagement? A prominent line of psychological research considers human motivation as structured by the degree of perceived self-determination. Importing this seminal motivation theory into political science, this study tests whether motivation to engage with politics can be represented as a multi-dimensional construct where each type of motivation is ordered on a continuum of self-determination and has distinct ramifications for whether and how a person engages with politics. Importantly, both controlled and autonomous types of political motivation are theorized to energize people into action. Yet, whereas controlled motivation is considered to elicit short-lived and superficial behavior only political engagement that is self-endorsed or perceived as inherently valuable should lead to deep and self-sustained forms of political action. Although self-determination theory been proven useful to assess reasons for action in various life domains, using multiple, large web surveys from Germany empirical support for it is weak when applied to the political domain. Employing various model specifications on two iteratively revised measures of political motivation revealed that the four theorized dimensions of political motivation could not be clearly distinguished from each other. Moreover, despite some evidence for the functional significance of perceived self-determination in the political domain the theory’s predictions received no consistent empirical support. This study therefore informs scholars of self-determination theory about the framework’s boundary conditions and scholars of political participation about theoretical dead-ends and potential avenues of further research.