In Pursuit of Transition: Some Aspects of the Role of Passion and Motivation in the Transition Movement

Summary of Findings

By Jill Kiepura, MS School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan

This past year I had the privilege of researching the Transition Movement as part of a project for my Master’s degree at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. I first learned about the Transition Movement through an Environmental Psychology course, and became interested in what motivates individuals, from a psychological perspective, to join and remain actively involved in such a movement.

I started with the hypothesis that active participants in Transition were likely to be passionate about the goals and underlying activities of the movement. To test this hypothesis, I distributed an online survey to members of Transition Initiatives across the United States. The survey results, in addition to follow-up phone interviews, did provide insight into the role of passion, but also revealed the importance of creating a supportive environment that allows people to build models, be effective, and achieve meaningful action. While this research is interesting in the context of environmental psychology, I hope that it is also interesting and useful to current and future Transition Initiatives in understanding individual members’ motivations, and creating a space that encourages active engagement.

I would like to thank everyone that took the time to complete the survey and spoke with me about their experiences with Transition. The findings in this report are based on 96 completed survey responses, and 14 subsequent phone interviews, in addition to background research in the fields of environmental psychology, intrinsic motivation, and the psychology of passion. The following is a high level summary of my findings, and several implications for Transition Initiatives. For a more comprehensive description of my findings and analysis, I encourage you to refer to the full report.

Role of Passion

I began this research interested in what role passion plays in motivating people to become interested and stay involved in a Transition Initiative. To explore this question I considered two types of passion (Vallerand 2003): Harmonious and Obsessive Passion. Basically, with Obsessive Passion an activity is so linked to a person’s identity that they cannot abandon it, resulting in a rigid persistence, and a feeling of coerced obligation. People who exhibit Harmonious Passion (HP), on the other hand, accept the activity they are passionate about as important, and as a significant part of their identity, but without any contingencies or pressures that conflict with other life activities. This kind of engagement generally leads to a more flexible form of persistence.

This research indicated that Harmonious Passion alone is not a statistically significant predictor of participation in Transition Initiatives. Obsessive Passion was a significant predictor of participation, but it was an even stronger predictor when paired together with Harmonious Passion. This result may, on first glance, seem counterintuitive, as the definitions of Obsessive and Harmonious Passion are easily imagined as opposites. However, it is conceivable that elements of each type of passion are supported by a Transition Initiative because of the complex and diverse nature of the movement. Transition Initiatives are comprised of a collection of activities, relationships, and objectives. Obsessive Passion creates a more dependent relationship with the Transition Movement that may lead to higher participation levels. However, elements of Harmonious Passion derived from a person’s relationship with his or her Transition Initiative might lead to more positive affect and healthy persistence toward its underlying activities (Vallerand 2003).

Notably, the results also suggest that a person’s level or type of passion is not necessarily the most important contributor to continued motivation and participation in an Initiative. Instead, intrinsic motivation for a high quality of life is the strongest predictor of high participation levels (more on this later).

Takeaway: While passion is not the primary driver of participation in existing Initiatives, there is an opportunity to recognize and build on the passion of members who strongly identify with activities and causes associated with the Transition Movement. Prior research provides evidence that Obsessive Passion can result in negative affect, dependence, and a lack of adaptation in behavior. Therefore, despite its being a predictor of higher participation levels, encouraging OP among members does not complement Transition principles of positive visioning, resilience, or inclusion and openness very well. 

However, encouraging a balance between Obsessive and Harmonious Passion could be a strong motivator for members.

Creating a Supportive Environment

I mentioned intrinsic motivation for a high quality of life as a primary predictor of participation levels. While a variety of interests and passions attract people to the Transition Movement, satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with a particular Initiative stems from a sense of mutual understanding, effectiveness, and action. These elements are components of the Reasonable Person Model (RPM). The RPM is a theory in cognitive psychology that assumes information processing plays a central role in people’s behavior. The basic premise of the model is that “people are more likely to be reasonable in environments that support their informational needs” (S. Kaplan & R. Kaplan 2009, p330). The RPM focuses on the interrelation between three primary components of human informational needs: Model Building, Meaningful Action, and Being Effective. The arrows in the diagram represent the continual interaction and feedback that exists between these components. Each component builds upon the other, creating strong reinforcing relationships.

People I talked to implicitly referred to elements of the Reasonable Person Model as they discussed their motivations for staying involved with their Transition Initiatives. This suggests that, once involved, members derive satisfaction, motivation, and fulfilment from Initiatives that provide a structure in which they can Build Models, Be Effective in their approach, and achieve Meaningful Action. For example, the Transition Movement may offer a new mental model that appeals to people who are looking for a way to understand and process concerns and anxieties about the state of the world, and are seeking meaningful ways to engage with people and pursue their interests. Successful Initiatives also enable members to be effective through an explicit focus on reskilling, experiential learning, and well thought-out group facilitation. Finally, respondents who felt most encouraged and fulfilled by their Initiatives spoke about active projects, personal development, and strong connections to other members. Thriving Initiatives tend to provide opportunities for people to lead or contribute to concrete projects. Active engagement allows people feel a sense of meaningful action beyond attending meetings and contributing to discussions.

Takeaway: While many Initiatives already integrate elements of the Reasonable Person Model into their communities, this research identifies the benefits of intentionally integrating each of these three components (Building Models, Being Effective, and Meaningful Action) into an Initiative’s projects, working groups, meeting protocol, and other events and engagements. This framework can also inform communication with current members and recruitment of new members.

Paths to Transition

One thing that stood out to me in conducting this research is that there is no single type of person nor a single motivating factor that draws people to the Transition Movement. In fact, there may be an advantage to having a balance of interests and personality types within an Initiative to encourage diversity of ideas and active working groups. Initiative members that were interviewed loosely fit into the following categories: Artistic, Scientific, and Spiritual.

Takeaway: These categories suggest that no one “type” of person is attracted to the Transition Movement. Instead, the Transition Movement attracts a balance of personalities. Each is attracted for a different reason, and brings a different skill set to the movement. These categories are not mutually exclusive; they simply represent dominant aspects of a person’s interests and tendencies, and demonstrate that passion for a variety of different activities or subject matters can predispose a person to the Transition Movement. A Transition Initiative benefits from this diversity in interests and personality types, as it brings new perspectives and approaches to building resilient communities.

Thank you again to everyone who participated in this research. I hope that it will provide some insight in future endeavors.

Works Cited

Kaplan, S. & R. Kaplan (2009) Creating a larger role for environmental psychology, The Reasonable Person Model as an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 29: 329-339.

Vallerand, R.J., Blanchard, C. M., Mageau, G.A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Léonard, M., Gagné, M., & Marsolais, J. (2003).  Les passions de l’âme: On obsessive and harmonious passion.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 756-767.


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