Predicting optimal experience: examining flow from the perspective of motivational intensity theory
The present research explores the relationship between Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of optimal experience, or flow, (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and Brehm’s integrated model of motivational intensity theory (Brehm & Self, 1989; Wright, 1998). Flow is defined as a state of intense focus, enjoyment, and lack of self-awareness that occurs when a person’s ability for a given task is able to meet the demands of the task (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Jackson & Marsh, 1996). The integrated model of motivational intensity theory (Wright, 1998) posits that energization is a function of difficulty and ability. To date, there has been no empirical test examining the relationship between ability and difficulty in the flow engagement model. Thus, the present study tests the hypothesis that the flow experience is governed by the same energy conservation laws governing energization. Using methodology adopted from Wright and Dill (1993), this study experimentally manipulated perceived ability (poor versus excellent perceived ability) and perceived task difficulty (unknown, easy, versus difficult) in a 2x3 factorial design. It was predicted that participants in the poor-ability easy and unknown task difficulty conditions would report greater flow and would energize more than participants in the difficult condition. It was also predicted that participants in the excellent-ability unknown and difficult conditions would report greater flow and energize more than participants in the easy condition. The manipulation checks suggest that both manipulations of perceived ability and perceived task difficulty were successful. Nevertheless, this study was unable to replicate previous findings that suggest energization is the function of perceived ability and perceived task difficulty. One explanation is that, unlike prior work on intensity theory, nearly all of the measures were assessed during task performance. Consequently, this may have afforded participants the opportunity to reassess the difficulty of the task. Importantly, this study found that perceived ability, one’s perception of task competency, accounts for variations in both the flow and energization measures. It was also found that positive affect captures and predicts composite flow and autotelic scale scores. These findings can be useful for flow researchers looking for alternative measures of flow, while also laying the groundwork for future experimental research attempting to predict the flow experience.
Conduct of life