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Skylab Adaptation of Self-Determination Theory and Physical Fitness

by Alfred J Nigl, Ph.D. and Dean Grey

In a recent paper, the authors discussed how Skylab USA leverages the power of SDT to maximize engagement behavior across its various business units (or planets in the Skylab vernacular). In fact, the very high engagement levels measured across the Skylab universe of businesses or planets are not adequately explained by the effects of gamification alone.

A close examination of the Skylab USA platform clearly shows how Skylab was designed to help users benefit from the positive effects of gamification yet at the same time minimize inherent negative effects through its VRS or Value Reinforcement System (which is based, in part, on Self-Determination Theory). It’s important to note at this juncture that Skylab was deliberately architected to take advantage of several of the leading theories in behavioral science and it has done an outstanding job weaving the key concepts of these theories into a unified and totally integrated system. For example, when a new planet is created in the Skylab universe, the planet architects follow the social-cognitive tenets of Julian Rotter and Albert Bandura to make sure that the behaviors to be reinforced are meaningful and the reinforcements (badges) have value to the users which conforms to the Law of Behavior or PB=ƒ(E, VR), which both Rotter and Bandura emphasized in their writings and their research.

Furthermore, the Skylab research team monitors the engagement statistics of each planet (See Table A) on a monthly basis to make sure that the members of each planet are engaged at the highest level possible.

Table A: Skylab Average Monthly Users April 2018Planetactive userstotal usersBrand Engagement %Mind Movies3,741684992%Powur PBC59363394%TEM13514792%Elevated11913489%Cheer-Life5512762272%Gravity11318162%Ultimate Game45075460%Seal Training21941852%College Planning2312219%Good Lovin313329%Trilogy354368%Hybrid Central48869470%Totals16,16722,35972%

Each one of the planets listed in the table above is an independent business that has adopted the Skylab app to grow it’s business, monetize the engagement of its user base and attract brand sponsors to provide more meaningful rewards for users in the future. The planets listed represent a wide variety of business verticals and new ones are constantly being created each month and added to the Skylab universe. Of special interest, is the planet named CheerLife; a communication app focused on tracking cheerleading athletes’ actions within the gym, their personal life and their educational experiences. Cheer’s athlete members range from young amateurs to professionals, including many world-class, award-winning athletes in cheer and dance. The Cheer-Life app also provides its members with multiple training lessons from the best trainers in the industry.

CheerLife’s brand engagement levels are consistently high as can be seen from Table A; ranging from 50% to over 70% on a month to month basis. This is not surprising when one considers the fact that Self-Determination Theory has been shown to be highly effective in motivating individuals to begin physical exercise regimens and sustain this activity over time.


The table below shows the most commonly performed actions by the members of Cheer-Life. This table ranks the most commonly observed activities and also shows the Self-Determination Theory motivation attribute which is responsible for the activity.ActionRank by FrequencySDT Motivation AttributePractice Check-In#1AutonomyTumbled#2CompetencePractice Stunts#3CompetenceWorked out to Cheer music repertoire#4CompetenceStretched#5Autonomy/CompetenceWorked out#6Autonomy/CompetenceHydrated#7AutonomyAte Healthy Meal#9AutonomyChecked in to Work/School#10Autonomy/CompetenceMotivated Others#11RelatednessGave a Compliment#12Relatedness

An examination of the above table illustrates how important the SDT motivation factor of autonomy is to explain the high levels of engagement among Cheer-Life members. Competence is also very important as is the combination of autonomy with competence.

Review of Research on Self-Determination Theory

Maliett and Hanrahan (2004) found that elite athletes were highly driven by personal goals and achievement (competence). Self-determined motivation characterized the elite athletes studied and their behavior and attitudes are consistent with Social Cognitive Learning theory. The authors summarized their research by writing that goal accomplishment enhances perceptions of competence and consequently promotes self-determined forms of motivation.

Another study found that a positive relationship between autonomous forms of motivation and physical exercise with a trend showing that self-regulation predicted initial adoption of a vigorous exercise routine (Beal et al 2003).

Beal et al also reported that Relatedness, as measured by group cohesion was particularly influential in maintaining sports adherence. This finding supports the general success of the Cheer-Life community and may be attributed to the member’s desire to maintain contact with the group. This was especially marked among adolescents (which would describe many of the Cheer-Life members).

Duda (2005) and Reinboth and Duda (2006) found evidence to support the belief that competence is fundamental to the expression of motivation in the context of amateur sports. Earlier research results found that athletes who have high levels of satisfaction of the three fundamental sources of SDT motivation (autonomy, competence and relatedness) also exhibit self-determined self-regulation. (Deci and Ryan, 2000)

Higher levels of motivation, external regulation and introjected regulation along with lower levels of relatedness and autonomy were significantly associated with adolescents who dropped out of sports or a regulated exercise program. Conversely, strong levels of relatedness and autonomy along with lower levels of motivation, external regulation and introjected regulation explained persistency in exercise and sports participation.

Vallerand and Rousseau (2001) found evidence that there are three types of intrinsic motivation that correspond to the motivation for stimulating experiences, knowledge gain and accomplishment and lead to persistence in exercise and sports participation.

In a recent paper (The Science of Gamification,2018), Nigl and Grey showed how Skylab USA has leveraged some of the key elements of game theory to build one of the most successful social engagement platforms in the post-Facebook era.

However, the authors also raised a note of caution about overinterpreting the positive outcomes of gamification. The fact is that multiple, well-designed experiments have failed to find a statistically significant effect for gamification in general although certain game elements were discovered to increase motivation for some users (e.g., badges, leaderboards among others). Other researchers (Shi et al, 2013) have found significant negative effects on intrinsic motivation due to the type and frequency of rewards used in some gamified platforms. Research has found that some gamification platforms may cause users to feel discouraged and stop trying (i.e., Amotivation).

Furthermore, some research studies have shown that misuse of rewards leads to over-justification, a situation that occurs when users pay more attention to external rewards to the detriment of internal motivating factors. In fact, studies have shown that extrinsic motivation leads to a decrease in learning performance.

Research has also shown that optimal learning occurs when users are in “flow” (flow is a theorized conscious state where users are fully immersed in what they are doing, feel highly energized and experience euphoria or a strong state of happiness). It has been suggested that misusing external rewards can prevent individuals from getting into the flow state and be counter-productive. Rewards can be misused when a gamification system is set up to deliver too many rewards too soon

It is clear, therefore that the very high brand engagement numbers reported by Skylab may be attributable to something other than gamification. The authors believe that this “something” is the intrinsic motivation that is created by the application of self-determination theory, a variant of self-reinforcement theory (Bandura 1986).

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a theory of human motivation and personality that focuses on people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs. It is primarily concerned with the motivation behind choices people make in the absence of external influence and interference. It is intimately connected to the earlier theory of self-efficacy which itself is derived from Bandura’s theoretical and research work on self-reinforcement and the source of this creative thinking and theorizing most certainly is the extensive work on social cognitive learning theory in the 1940s and 1950s which represented a significant break from the stimulus-response and reinforcement-learning research traditions of such behaviorists as Hull, Spence, Skinner and Harlow.

In 1941, Miller and Dollard first proposed the theory of social learning. Twenty years later, In 1963, Bandura and Walters expanded social learning theory with the principles of observational learning (or modeling) and vicarious reinforcement. Eventually, Bandura added his concept of self-efficacy in 1977, as an alternative to behavioral learning. The final result of all these innovations was SCT (Social Cognitive Theory).

Social-Cognitive Learning Theories

The social-cognitive learning tradition developed as a reaction to the animal-centric theories and research of stimulus-response behaviorists primarily because this growing body of research failed to account for the fact that humans learn by using mental processes and language skills rather than merely responding to stimulus-response situations.

Skylab was originally conceived as a social platform for affinity groups, therefore, it is not surprising that Skylab has been so successful in generating high levels of engagement by aligning its business practices with the principles of social cognitive learning including self-efficacy, modeling, and self-determination.

Glanz et al (2002) listed the key concepts underlying social cognitive learning which include: Environment: Factors physically external to the person; Provides opportunities and social support Situation: Perception of the environment; correct misperceptions and promote healthful forms Glanz et al (2002):

Situation: perception of the environment, correct misperceptions and promote healthy forms of behavior.

Behavioral capability: Knowledge and skill to perform a given behavior; promote mastery learning through skills training

Expectations: Anticipatory outcomes of a behavior; Model positive outcomes of healthful behavior

Expectancies: The values that the person places on a given outcome, incentives; Present outcomes of change that have functional meaning

Self-control: Personal regulation of goal-directed behavior or performance; Provide opportunities for self-monitoring, goal setting, problem-solving, and self-reward

Observational learning: Behavioral acquisition that occurs by watching the actions and outcomes of others’ behavior; Include credible role models of the targeted behavior

Reinforcements: Responses to a person’s behavior that increase or decrease the likelihood of reoccurrence; Promote self-initiated rewards and incentives

Self-efficacy: The person’s confidence in performing a particular behavior; Approach behavioral change in small steps to ensure success

Emotional coping responses: Strategies or tactics that are used by a person to deal with emotional stimuli; provide training in problem-solving and stress management

Reciprocal determinism: The dynamic interaction of the person, the behavior, and the environment in which the behavior is performed; consider multiple avenues to behavioral change, including environmental, skill, and personal change.Conceptual Model of Self-Determination Theory or SDT

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) and Contextual Gamification

The chart above illustrates the conceptual model underlying the Self-determination theory. The most important personality and behavioral features of SDT are the three psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and social relatedness.

Autonomy is defined as the individual perceiving that he/she is the source of his/her behavior; that is, the autonomous individual does not feel controlled by external forces and feels free to make his/her own decisions of how to behave in various situations.

Competence is defined as feeling effective in one’s interactions with the social environment and feeling able to express oneself to the fullest and apply all one’s talents to the fullest capacity.

Relatedness is the desire to be connected to other people.

The satisfaction of these important needs then leads to increased voluntary actions (i.e., actions without external stimulation and direction), increased motivation and high levels of engagement; these are exactly the effects that can be measured on Skylab and which result in enhanced performance, persistence and creativity among its universe of users.

Types of Motivation

There are three main types of motivation engendered by a program based on self-determination Theory (e.g., Skylab USA). • Amotivation • Extrinsic • Intrinsic

The continuum of motivation created by SDT principles is represented as follows (based on research including Russell & Bray, 2009, Edmunds et al 2006):

Motivation—– External—–Introjected —–Identified—–Integrated—– Intrinsic

Amotivation means that the individual shows a lack of intention and or willingness to perform a behavior or action.

External and Introjected motivation are aggregated as non-self-determined motivation in contrast to Identified, Integrated and Intrinsic which are part of the self-determined motivation. When individuals are acting due to self-determined motivation, they partake in the activity because they value the activity or the rewards which result and they derive pleasure or satisfaction from the activity.

SDT experts have recommended that this theory is integrated with other behavioral learning theories to further explain behavior, one such theory that may provide a more comprehensive explanation of human behavior is Bandura’s Self-efficacy theory (SET).

SDT and SET are well-aligned because they are both based on the concept that humans are agents of their own actions. Simply put, this concept of agency means that humans possess complex mental processes that allow them to make decisions about their behavior independently of others. When a Skylab user performs a positive action in a specific community; he or she is doing so because of the value they derive from the behavior and the subsequent rewards they receive. (Sweet et al, 2012).

Skylab has been designed to provide need support for its users, i.e., the VRS system provides multiple and varied opportunities for satisfying the SDT basic needs-autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. Therefore, the reward system (badges) is less important in motivating users to exhibit high engagement levels than the value they receive from the social interaction they engage in as part of an affinity group which reinforces this behavior; the group reinforcement is a significant source of intrinsic motivation for Skylab users. In fact, the results of a series of surveys presented to Skylab users show that the value ratings given for gamification elements (ratings made on 7 points Likert scale) were significantly lower (mean rating = 4.31) than the value ratings given for the social reinforcement and interaction factors (mean rating = 6.64), p<.05.

In fact, the Skylab model may be referred to as Contextual Gamification similar to the methodology that Shi et al applied successfully to an e-learning situation. Contextual gamification strategies apply motivation theories to reduce the side effects of gamification, increase intrinsic motivation and flow, thus optimizing the user’s engagement and levels of satisfaction.


Based on the research of Garvin (2014) and Shi et al (2015), Skylab USA is well positioned to create exercise and fitness based business units or planets because of its emphasis on Social-Cognitive Learning theory and related theories such as Self-efficacy, Self-Determination and its value-based Contextual Gamification platform which is designed to increase intrinsic motivation and optimize the key principles of SDT including Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness


Shi, L., Cristea, A. Hadxidedic, S. and Dervishalidovic, N, Contextual Gamification of Social Interaction- towards increasing motivation in Social E-learning… Research Gate,(2014) Sweet, S., Fortier, M. Strachan, S. and Blanchard, C. Testing and Integrating Self-Determination Theory and Self-Efficacy Theory in a Physical Activity Context, Canadian Psychology, 2012, v. 53 319-377. Garrin, J. Self-Efficacy, Self-Determination, and Self-Regulation: the role of the Fitness Professional in Social Change Agency, Journal of Social Change, 2014, V 6.


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