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Dr. Richard Koestner

Richard Koestner

Professor of Psychology, McGill University

November 2023

You are the director of the Human Motivation Lab at McGill University. Could you tell me more about that?

At the lab, we study how people’s sociocultural surroundings determine which goals they choose to pursue and how they motivate themselves to pursue these goals. The research lab operates as a team effort, with postdocs, PhD students, and undergraduates. Since the pandemic, our focus has expanded to cover community-oriented research, in addition to just basic psychology research.

What do we mean when we talk about “Human Motivation”?

To give you an idea, when I arrived at McGill University in 1988, there was already a course on motivation, but it focused on the motivation of basic organisms, such as eels. I wanted to teach a course that distinguished itself from that course, and I called it Human Motivation. I’d previously studied under Edward Deci, a pioneer in motivational psychology, who created the “self-determination theory,” a motivation theory that argues that humans’ growth, development, and well-being depends on three basic psychological needs being satisfied. These needs are autonomy (feeling like you matter and that you endorse your actions and pursued goals), relatedness (feeling connected to others), and competence (feeling that you can do tasks well).

While I always approach my research at an individual level, these three needs also function on a community group level. It is important to feel that the groups we care about are having their needs satisfied.

How did you come to work with Quebec’s English-speaking communities?

It was through my work with the Black Community Resource Centre (BCRC), which focuses on English-speaking visible minority youth.

At the start of the pandemic, I decided I would accept every invitation I received. Since I study well-being and motivation, I straightaway started receiving requests to give talks. One of them came from a former student working at the BCRC. Something striking during the pandemic was that Black communities were suffering the most, for various systemic reasons, so I decided to help with a workshop and work closely with the BCRC on a large survey to assess the resilience of the Black community.

Initially, we only intended to assess how Black young adults’ motivation and well-being were being impacted by the pandemic. Three weeks later, George Floyd was murdered, and we found ourselves in not only the worst health crisis in a century, but also the biggest civil rights movement in the United States in the past 50 years. It felt pointless to conduct a survey on the pandemic alone.

We initially measured the impact on young adults in the English-speaking community compared with those in French-speaking populations, then expanded to include older adults in Quebec versus Ontario and other provinces. We found that the English-speaking Black community in Quebec seemed to be having a tougher time as a double minority, racialized and linguistic, with the intersectional effects that come with that. We’ve been exploring this since 2020, but we’re now also zooming out to look at the broader English-speaking community.

Could you tell me more about how you’ll be looking at the broader English-speaking community?

It’s a survey for members of both English- and French-speaking communities, framed in the context of new language laws such as Bill 96. For English-speaking participants, the aim is to understand what’s happening to their personal sense of autonomy, relatedness, and competence, as well as the collective sense of these needs. On the Francophone side, our objective is to comprehend whether French-speaking participants acknowledge the situation and whether they endorse it. We also seek to understand the reasons behind their endorsement and explore whether anything could change it.

In your opinion, how might understanding human motivation help affect societal change as it relates to English-speaking Quebec?

Take, for instance, the effect of certain language laws on the motivation to learn and practise French. Our research has shown that the English-speaking minority, regardless of their cultural heritage, feel that their sense of autonomy is being constrained by the recent language laws. Research based on self-determination theory indicates that compulsory demands on a population destroy intrinsic motivation, as well as any sense of meaning and value associated with wanting to fit into a larger society. Therefore, despite government courses being available for English speakers to foster French proficiency, the motivation for people to take them is impacted by the perception that they would not be doing so out of choice.

What has struck you in your research on Quebec’s English-speaking communities?

The biggest thing is that, when you’re part of a minority community, especially a targeted one, your personal experiences become secondary to what you see happening to your group. Being more like the majority population doesn’t shield your motivation and well-being from what you perceive as the broader treatment of your community. It’s real a sense of “when they suffer, I suffer.”

Are there any useful actions that you’ve observed for those who feel impacted like this?

Doing more community-oriented research has helped me feel like I am doing something that might impact the larger sociopolitical situation in Quebec, and this sense of agency helps me. I have also found many people at the BCRC with whom I have enjoyed working and who have helped me think about our current situation in more complex ways. Talking to and collaborating with other people is a great way to maintain hope and motivation.

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