Cognitive Evaluation Theory


How external influences affect intrinsic motivation

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … applying; acting appropriately
  • Learner is … a movable form (individual requiring motivation)
  • Learning is … pursuing
  • Teaching is … rewarding; praising; providing feedback.




Cognitive Evaluation Theory is a sub-theory to Self-Determination Theory that looks at how intrinsic motivation is affected by external influences. Among its explanatory propositions, Cognitive Evaluation Theory asserts that external events that prompt greater self-confidence will enhance intrinsic motivation, and events that challenge self-confidence will negatively impact intrinsic motivation. Subdiscourses include:
  • Motivational Crowding Theory (Bruno Frey, 1997) – the suggestion that external incentives for specific behaviors can sometimes undermine one’s intrinsic motivation, leading to poorer rather than better performances


The core assertion of Cognitive Evaluation Theory is commonsensical, and so it should be no surprise that there is empirical evidence showing that students’ intrinsic motivation and competence improve with positive feedback and autonomy of choice … and decrease with negative feedback or constrained choice. Somewhat more interesting, and contradictory to the theory, rewards can affect engagement, but they do not contribute to improvements in intrinsic motivation.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Edward Deci; Richard Ryan

Status as a Theory of Learning

Cognitive Evaluation Theory is dressed up like an academic theory, but its assumptions and core assertions reveal it to belong among Folk Theories of learning,

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Cognitive Evaluation Theory is not a theory of teaching, but it does provide direct advice to teachers on strategies and foci.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Cognitive Evaluation Theory is not a scientific theory, principally because there is a large body of evidence to dispute it.


  • Motivational Crowding Theory

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Cognitive Evaluation Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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