4.7 Open-ended development

In this subsection we will more directly address the intimate relation between open-ended development, intrinsic motivation, and acting out in the world. In their review paper on extrinsic and intrinsic motivations and their importance for education and development, Ryan and Deci [2000] conclude that “social contextual conditions that support one’s feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness are the basis for one maintaining intrinsic motivation.” They define relatedness as the basic need to feel connected, competence as the basic need to be effective, and autonomy as the basic need to feel agentic. According to Ryan and Deci we need these three basic human needs to be fulfilled in the classroom “as one is exposed to new ideas and exercises new skills.”

Interestingly, this conclusion can be connected one-to-one with the quadrant structure of Figure Liberation, Table Mood, motivation, and mind-states, and Figure Motivation, authority and co-creation . In the exploration quadrant one expresses autonomy and agency and extends one’s behavioral repertoire. In the consolidation quadrant one develops — in the absence of environmental pressures — new relations between oneself and the environment and one relates and combines hitherto unrelated knowledge and experiences. In doing so one generalizes, stabilizes, and consolidates knowledge and relations (whether mental, social, or otherwise). The consolidated knowledge, (social) relations, and skills, no longer new and unpredictable, become more and more suitable for general utility and in particular problem solving (a left-hemispheric activity). This corresponds to the problem-solving quadrant in which the agent can prove its increased competence and test and fine-tune its extended behavioral repertoire. Successful real-world problem solving leads to confidence, which is a basis for further exploration, consolidation, and testing. This ‘open-ended development loop’ is depicted in Figure Open-ended development loop.

Open-ended development loop
Open-ended development loop

Figure Open-ended development loop. The words in brackets originate from Ryan and Deci [2000]. The loop depends essentially on the rewards signals associated with exploration (experiencing novelty), consolidation (discovering and fostering relations), and successful problem solving. The reward signals associated with this loop, described as peak experiences [Maslow, 1962], drive the outward spiraling development of Figure Development Spiral.

The continuation of the open-ended development loop depends crucially on the success-rate of the in the real-world problem solving ability. Failure to come up with a suitable solution leads to reduced confidence and eventually frustration. Perkins and Hill [1985] provides strong support that boredom is associated with frustration, and since the lower left quadrant is associated with boredom, low agency, and the need for guidance, it makes sense to situate persistent failure and the ensuing low confidence and reduced urge to explore in this quadrant. Persistent failure not only disrupts the open-ended development loop, it is also a strong demotivation to engage in any agentic activity and especially activities that are not habitual (because habits are activated by the environment) and therefore rely on some measure of agency.

Learned helplessness

This description is reminiscent of the phenomenon of learned helplessness that was discovered when “dogs exposed to inescapable and unavoidable electric shocks in one situation later failed to learn to escape shock in a different situation where escape was possible [Maier, 1976].” Learned helplessness depends on the uncontrollability of the aversive stimulus, which may entail that the agent learns that its activities do no longer produce intended outcomes. If so the agent does not unlearn its behavior, it simply no longer activates it because of its expected futility. Interestingly, in rats learned helplessness occurs only when one crucial condition is satisfied: “the response used in the test for learned helplessness must be difficult, and not something the rat does very readily.”

Which, indeed, suggests that learned helplessness occurs only with activities that are agentic. This is the reason why the lower left describes its effect as ‘deactivating behaviors.’ The description of the lower left quadrant as deactivating behaviors is of course useful for behaviors that are not productive or harmful. The catch of learned helplessness is that it it may extend to any self-initiated behavior. If so it is the most pervasive form of disempowerment and the antithesis of self-empowerment.

The open-ended development loop will be connected to the Trivium, a millennia old approach to education that is aimed at learning to deal with the challenges of an open world through developing the skills and strengths of the two brain hemispheres.



  • Ryan, Richard M, and Edward L Deci. 2000. “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 25 (1): 54–67. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020.

  • Maslow, Abraham H. 1962. Toward a Psychology of Being. D. van Nostrand company inc.

  • Perkins, R E, and A B Hill. 1985. “Cognitive and Affective Aspects of Boredom.” British Journal of Psychology. http://pao.chadwyck.co.uk.proxy-ub.rug.nl/articles/results.do?QueryType=articles.

  • Maier, Steven F, and Martin E Seligman. 1976. “Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence..” Journal of Experimental Psychology General 105 (1): 3–46. doi:10.1037/0096–3445.105.1.3.