Self-Determination Theory

Learn about self-determination theory, a psychological framework that explains how people are motivated by their innate needs and interests, and how it can be applied to various domains and contexts.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory is a psychological framework that explains how people are motivated by their innate needs and interests. This framework was developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the 1970s and 1980s, based on their research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to the natural, inherent drive to seek out challenges and new possibilities, which in turn relate to cognitive and social development. Extrinsic motivation refers to the external sources of motivation, such as rewards, punishments, or social pressure.

Self-Determination Theory suggests that people are not simply passive or reactive to their environment, but rather active and proactive in pursuing their goals and interests. Self-Determination Theory also recognizes that people are influenced by their social context, which can either support or hinder their needs and motivation.

Self-Determination Theory makes two key assumptions:

  • The need for growth drives behaviour. Self-Determination Theory assumes that people have an innate tendency to seek optimal challenges, to learn new skills, and to integrate new experiences into a coherent sense of self. This process of self-actualization is driven by the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs.
  • Autonomous motivation is important. Self-Determination Theory distinguishes between different types of motivation based on the degree of autonomy or self-determination involved. Autonomous motivation occurs when people act in accordance with their true interests and values, whereas controlled motivation occurs when people act out of external or internal pressure. Self-Determination Theory argues that autonomous motivation leads to more positive outcomes than controlled motivation, such as higher performance, persistence, creativity, and well-being.

What is self-determination and why is it important?

Self-determination is the ability to make choices and act on them, without being controlled by external forces or pressures. It is a fundamental human right and a key aspect of human dignity. Self-determination is also a source of intrinsic motivation, which is the desire to do something for its own sake, rather than for an external reward or punishment.

According to Self-Determination Theory, self-determination is not a fixed trait that people have or lack, but a dynamic process that can vary depending on the context and the degree to which the three psychological needs are met. Self-Determination Theory suggests that people are naturally oriented toward growth and development, and that they seek to fulfill their potential and express their true selves. However, this innate tendency can be either supported or hindered by the social environment and the type of motivation that people experience.

Self-Determination Theory is important because it provides a comprehensive and empirically supported theory of human motivation and well-being, that can be applied to various domains and populations. It can help us understand how people make decisions, pursue goals, cope with challenges, and interact with others. Self-Determination Theory can also help us design interventions and policies that promote optimal functioning and flourishing for individuals and society.

What are the three psychological needs and how do they affect motivation and behaviour?

Self-Determination Theory identifies three universal and essential psychological needs that are inherent in human nature and that must be satisfied for optimal functioning and well-being. These are:

  • Autonomy: the need to feel that one is the origin and agent of one’s actions, and that one can act in accordance with one’s values and interests.
  • Competence: the need to feel that one is capable and effective in achieving desired outcomes, and that one can master challenges and learn new skills.
  • Relatedness: the need to feel that one is connected and cared for by others, and that one can share and receive support and affection.

These needs are not optional or contingent on culture or personality, but are universal and essential for all human beings. They are also not hierarchical or additive, but are interrelated and synergistic. That is, satisfying one need can facilitate the satisfaction of another, and vice versa. For example, feeling autonomous can enhance one’s competence and relatedness, and feeling competent can increase one’s autonomy and relatedness.

The satisfaction of these needs has a positive impact on motivation and behaviour, as well as on psychological and physical well-being. When people experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness, they are more likely to:

  • Engage in activities that are intrinsically motivated and meaningful to them
  • Persist and perform better in their tasks and goals
  • Experience positive emotions such as joy, interest, and satisfaction
  • Develop a positive self-concept and self-esteem
  • Have a sense of purpose and direction in life
  • Have higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction
  • Have lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Have better physical health and immune function

On the other hand, the thwarting or deprivation of these needs has a negative impact on motivation and behaviour, as well as on psychological and physical well-being. When people experience a lack of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, they are more likely to:

  • Engage in activities that are extrinsically motivated and controlled by others
  • Give up or perform poorly in their tasks and goals
  • Experience negative emotions such as frustration, boredom, and anger
  • Develop a negative self-concept and self-esteem
  • Have a sense of emptiness and alienation in life
  • Have lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction
  • Have higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Have worse physical health and immune function

Therefore, it is important to create and maintain environments that support and nurture the three psychological needs, and to avoid or minimize environments that undermine or neglect them.

What are the types and sources of motivation and how do they influence outcomes?

Self-Determination Theory distinguishes between different types and sources of motivation, based on the degree of autonomy and self-determination that they involve. Motivation can be classified into two broad categories: intrinsic and extrinsic.

  • Intrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something for its own sake, because it is interesting, enjoyable, or satisfying. Intrinsic motivation is the highest form of self-determined motivation, as it reflects the expression of one’s true self and the fulfillment of one’s psychological needs. Intrinsic motivation is associated with positive outcomes such as creativity, learning, performance, and well-being.
  • Extrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something for an external reason, such as a reward, a punishment, or a pressure. Extrinsic motivation is not necessarily bad or undesirable, as it can sometimes help people achieve important goals or overcome difficulties. However, extrinsic motivation can vary in the degree of autonomy and self-determination that it involves, depending on the source and the regulation of the behaviour. Self-Determination Theory identifies four types of extrinsic motivation, from the lowest to the highest level of self-determination:
    • External regulation: the behaviour is controlled by external rewards or punishments, such as money, grades, or approval. The behaviour is performed only to obtain the reward or avoid the punishment, and not because it is valued or meaningful. External regulation is the lowest form of extrinsic motivation, as it reflects a lack of autonomy and self-determination. External regulation is associated with negative outcomes such as anxiety, resentment, and poor performance.
    • Introjected regulation: the behaviour is controlled by internal rewards or punishments, such as pride, guilt, or shame. The behaviour is performed to enhance one’s ego or avoid one’s guilt, and not because it is valued or meaningful. Introjected regulation is a slightly higher form of extrinsic motivation, as it reflects some internalization of the behaviour, but it is still not fully autonomous or self-determined. Introjected regulation is associated with mixed outcomes such as pressure, conflict, and inconsistency.
    • Identified regulation: the behaviour is performed because it is valued or meaningful, and because it serves a personal goal or interest. The behaviour is accepted and endorsed by the self, and is congruent with one’s values and beliefs. Identified regulation is a higher form of extrinsic motivation, as it reflects a high degree of autonomy and self-determination. Identified regulation is associated with positive outcomes such as commitment, satisfaction, and achievement.
    • Integrated regulation: the behaviour is performed because it is fully integrated and consistent with one’s self and identity. The behaviour is not only valued and meaningful, but also harmonious and coherent with one’s other goals and interests. Integrated regulation is the highest form of extrinsic motivation, as it reflects the highest degree of autonomy and self-determination. Integrated regulation is associated with positive outcomes such as authenticity, integrity, and well-being.

Self-Determination Theory suggests that people can move from lower to higher levels of self-determined motivation, through a process of internalization and integration. Internalization is the process of transforming external regulations into internal regulations, by recognizing their value and meaning. Integration is the process of aligning internal regulations with one’s self and identity, by making them consistent and coherent. The process of internalization and integration is facilitated by the satisfaction of the three psychological needs, especially autonomy. Therefore, it is important to support and nurture people’s autonomy, by providing them with choice, rationale, feedback, and acknowledgment, and by avoiding or minimizing coercion, control, and pressure.

Self-Determination Theory Motivation Continuum adapted by Dev Roychowdhury from Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Components of Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory consists of six mini-theories that explain different aspects of human motivation:

  • Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET): This mini-theory focuses on how external factors, such as rewards, feedback, and choice, affect intrinsic motivation, which is the motivation to do something for its own sake, because it is interesting, enjoyable, or satisfying. CET proposes that intrinsic motivation depends on the satisfaction of two psychological needs: autonomy and competence. Autonomy is the need to feel that one is the origin and agent of one’s actions, and competence is the need to feel that one is capable and effective in achieving desired outcomes. CET suggests that external factors can either support or undermine these needs, and thus enhance or diminish intrinsic motivation. For example, positive feedback can increase intrinsic motivation by supporting competence, while negative feedback can decrease intrinsic motivation by undermining competence. Similarly, choice can increase intrinsic motivation by supporting autonomy, while coercion can decrease intrinsic motivation by undermining autonomy.
  • Organismic Integration Theory (OIT): This theory explains how extrinsic motivation can be internalized and integrated into the self. OIT proposes that there are four types of extrinsic motivation, ranging from low to high levels of autonomy: external regulation, introjected regulation, identified regulation, and integrated regulation (I have explained these above!). External regulation is the least autonomous form of extrinsic motivation, where behaviour is controlled by external rewards or punishments. Introjected regulation is a slightly more autonomous form of extrinsic motivation, where behaviour is driven by internal pressure, such as guilt, shame, or pride. Identified regulation is a more autonomous form of extrinsic motivation, where behaviour is valued and accepted as personally important. Integrated regulation is the most autonomous form of extrinsic motivation, where behaviour is fully consistent with one’s interests and values. OIT suggests that the internalization and integration of extrinsic motivation depend on the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs and the supportiveness of the social context.

OIT suggests that people can move from lower to higher levels of self-determined motivation, through a process of internalization and integration. Internalization is the process of transforming external regulations into internal regulations, by recognizing their value and meaning. Integration is the process of aligning internal regulations with one’s self and identity, by making them consistent and coherent. The process of internalization and integration is facilitated by the satisfaction of the three psychological needs, especially autonomy.

  • Causality Orientations Theory (COT): This mini-theory describes individual differences in people’s tendencies to orient toward environments and regulate behaviour in various ways. COT describes and assesses three types of causality orientations: the autonomy orientation, the control orientation, and the impersonal orientation. The autonomy orientation is characterized by a preference for self-determined activities, a sensitivity to the psychological needs, and a willingness to initiate and regulate one’s own behaviour. The control orientation is characterized by a preference for controlled activities, a sensitivity to rewards and pressures, and a tendency to comply with or resist external demands. The impersonal orientation is characterized by a lack of preference for any type of activity, a lack of sensitivity to the psychological needs, and a difficulty to initiate and regulate one’s own behaviour. COT suggests that these orientations are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, and that they have implications for motivation, behaviour, and well-being. For example, people with a high autonomy orientation are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation, positive emotions, and self-esteem, while people with a high impersonal orientation are more likely to experience amotivation, negative emotions, and low self-esteem.
  • Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT): This mini-theory elaborates on the concept of evolved psychological needs and their relations to psychological health and well-being. BPNT argues that psychological well-being and optimal functioning is predicated on autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Therefore, contexts that support versus thwart these needs should invariantly impact wellness. The theory argues that all three needs are essential and that if any is thwarted there will be distinct functional costs. Autonomy is the need to feel that one is the origin and agent of one’s actions, and that one can act in accordance with one’s values and interests. Competence is the need to feel that one is capable and effective in achieving desired outcomes, and that one can master challenges and learn new skills. Relatedness is the need to feel that one is connected and cared for by others, and that one can share and receive support and affection. These needs are not optional or contingent on culture or personality, but are universal and essential for all human beings. They are also not hierarchical or additive, but are interrelated and synergistic. That is, satisfying one need can facilitate the satisfaction of another, and vice versa. For example, feeling autonomous can enhance one’s competence and relatedness, and feeling competent can increase one’s autonomy and relatedness. The satisfaction of these needs has a positive impact on motivation and behaviour, as well as on psychological and physical well-being. The thwarting or deprivation of these needs has a negative impact on motivation and behaviour, as well as on psychological and physical well-being.
  • Goal Contents Theory (GCT): This mini-theory focuses on how the content and quality of people’s goals affect their motivation and well-being. GCT proposes that there are two types of goals: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic goals are those that are inherently satisfying and meaningful, such as personal growth, affiliation, and community contribution. Extrinsic goals are those that are contingent on external approval or rewards, such as wealth, fame, and image. GCT suggests that intrinsic goals are more conducive to psychological well-being and optimal functioning than extrinsic goals, because they are more aligned with the psychological needs and the innate growth tendency. GCT also suggests that the pursuit and attainment of intrinsic goals are more likely to be supported by autonomous motivation, while the pursuit and attainment of extrinsic goals are more likely to be supported by controlled motivation. Therefore, GCT implies that people should pursue and attain intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic goals, and that they should do so with autonomous motivation rather than controlled motivation.
  • Relationships Motivation Theory (RMT): This mini-theory is sometimes considered as a sixth mini-theory, although it is not formally recognized as such by the Self-Determination Theory website. RMT focuses on how the psychological needs and the type of motivation affect the quality and outcomes of interpersonal relationships. RMT proposes that relationships are more satisfying and fulfilling when they are based on mutual autonomy support, competence support, and relatedness support. Autonomy support is the provision of choice, rationale, feedback, and acknowledgment to the partner. Competence support is the provision of challenge, guidance, encouragement, and recognition to the partner. Relatedness support is the provision of care, affection, empathy, and acceptance to the partner. RMT suggests that these supports enhance the partner’s psychological needs and autonomous motivation, which in turn foster positive relationship outcomes, such as intimacy, trust, commitment, and well-being. RMT also suggests that these supports are reciprocal and dynamic, meaning that they are influenced by and influence the partner’s supports, needs, and motivation. Therefore, RMT implies that people should support and nurture their partner’s psychological needs and autonomous motivation, and that they should seek and receive the same from their partner.

How can Self-Determination Theory be applied to various domains such as education, work, health, and sports?

Self-Determination Theory has been applied to various domains and contexts, such as education, work, health, and sports, to understand and improve the motivation and well-being of individuals and groups. Here are some examples of how this theory can be applied to these domains:

  • Education: Self-Determination Theory can help educators and students enhance their motivation and performance in learning and teaching. It suggests that educators can support and nurture students’ psychological needs by creating a supportive and engaging learning environment, where students have autonomy, competence, and relatedness. For example, educators can:
    • Provide students with choices and options in their learning activities, such as topics, methods, and pace
    • Explain the relevance and purpose of the learning activities, and how they relate to students’ goals and interests
    • Provide students with positive and constructive feedback, and help them monitor their progress and achievements
    • Encourage students to explore and experiment with different ideas and strategies, and to learn from their mistakes and challenges
    • Support students’ social and emotional needs, and foster a sense of belonging and community in the classroom
    • Respect students’ individual differences and preferences, and accommodate their diverse learning styles and needs

To enhance their motivation and performance using the principles of Self-Determination Theory, students can:

    • Choose and pursue learning goals that are aligned with their interests and values
    • Seek and use feedback to improve their skills and knowledge, and to celebrate their achievements
    • Challenge themselves and seek opportunities to learn new things and solve problems
    • Collaborate and cooperate with their peers and teachers, and share their ideas and perspectives
    • Reflect on their learning experiences and outcomes, and how they relate to their self and identity

  • Work: Self-Determination Theory can help employers and employees enhance their motivation and performance in work and career. It suggests that employers can support and nurture employees’ psychological needs by creating a supportive and engaging work environment, where employees have autonomy, competence, and relatedness. For example, employers can:
    • Provide employees with choices and options in their work tasks, such as goals, methods, and deadlines
    • Explain the relevance and purpose of the work tasks, and how they relate to employees’ goals and interests
    • Provide employees with positive and constructive feedback, and help them monitor their progress and achievements
    • Encourage employees to explore and experiment with different ideas and strategies, and to learn from their mistakes and failures
    • Support employees’ social and emotional needs, and foster a sense of belonging and community in the workplace
    • Respect employees’ individual differences and preferences, and accommodate their diverse work styles and needs

To enhance their motivation and performance using the principles of Self-Determination Theory, employees can:

    • Choose and pursue work goals that are aligned with their interests and values
    • Seek and use feedback to improve their skills and knowledge, and to celebrate their achievements
    • Challenge themselves and seek opportunities to learn new things and solve problems
    • Collaborate and cooperate with their colleagues and managers, and share their ideas and perspectives
    • Reflect on their work experiences and outcomes, and how they relate to their self and identity

  • Health: Self-Determination Theory can help health professionals and clients enhance their motivation and behaviour in health and wellness. It suggests that health professionals can support and nurture clients’ psychological needs by creating a supportive and engaging health environment, where clients have autonomy, competence, and relatedness. For example, health professionals can:
    • Provide individuals with choices and options in their health behaviours, such as goals, methods, and frequency
    • Explain the relevance and purpose of the health behaviours, and how they relate to individuals’ goals and interests
    • Provide individuals with positive and constructive feedback, and help them monitor their progress and outcomes
    • Encourage individuals to explore and experiment with different health strategies, and to learn from their successes and setbacks
    • Support individuals’ social and emotional needs, and foster a sense of belonging and community in the health setting
    • Respect individuals’ differences and preferences, and accommodate their diverse health needs and challenges

To enhance their motivation and performance using the principles of Self-Determination Theory, clients can:

    • Choose and pursue health goals that are aligned with their interests and values
    • Seek and use feedback to improve their health and well-being, and to celebrate their outcomes
    • Challenge themselves and seek opportunities to improve their health and wellness
    • Collaborate and cooperate with their health professionals and peers, and share their experiences and insights
    • Reflect on their health behaviours and outcomes, and how they relate to their self and identity

  • Sports: Self-Determination Theory can help coaches and athletes enhance their motivation and performance in sports and physical activity. It suggests that coaches can support and nurture athletes’ psychological needs by creating a supportive and engaging sport environment, where athletes have autonomy, competence, and relatedness. For example, coaches can:
    • Provide athletes with choices and options in their sport activities, such as goals, methods, and intensity
    • Explain the relevance and purpose of the sport activities, and how they relate to athletes’ goals and interests
    • Provide athletes with positive and constructive feedback, and help them monitor their progress and achievements
    • Encourage athletes to explore and experiment with different sport strategies, and to learn from their mistakes and failures
    • Support athletes’ social and emotional needs, and foster a sense of belonging and community in the sport setting
    • Respect athletes’ individual differences and preferences, and accommodate their diverse sport styles and needs

To enhance their motivation and performance using the principles of Self-Determination Theory, athletes can:

    • Choose and pursue sport goals that are aligned with their interests and values
    • Seek and use feedback to improve their skills and knowledge, and to celebrate their achievements
    • Challenge themselves and seek opportunities to learn new things and solve problems
    • Collaborate and cooperate with their coaches and peers, and share their ideas and perspectives
    • Reflect on their sport experiences and outcomes, and how they relate to their self and identity

What are the benefits and challenges of Self-Determination Theory for individuals and society?

Self-Determination Theory has many benefits and challenges for individuals and society, as it provides a comprehensive and empirically supported theory of human motivation and well-being, that can be applied to various domains and contexts. Some of the benefits and challenges of Self-Determination Theory are:

  • Benefits:
    • Self-Determination Theory can help individuals and groups achieve their goals and enhance their well-being, by supporting and nurturing their psychological needs and self-determined motivation
    • Self-Determination Theory can help individuals and groups develop a positive self-concept and self-esteem, by allowing them to express their true selves and fulfill their potential
    • Self-Determination Theory can help individuals and groups have a sense of purpose and direction in life, by enabling them to pursue meaningful and valuable activities and outcomes
    • Self-Determination Theory can help individuals and groups have higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction, by facilitating positive emotions and experiences
    • Self-Determination Theory can help individuals and groups have lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, by reducing negative emotions and outcomes
    • Self-Determination Theory can help individuals and groups have better physical health and immune function, by promoting healthy behaviours and outcomes
  • Challenges:
    • Self-Determination Theory can be difficult to implement and maintain, as it requires a supportive and engaging environment that respects and nurtures the psychological needs and self-determined motivation of individuals and groups
    • Self-Determination Theory can be influenced and compromised by various factors, such as culture, personality, and context, that can affect the satisfaction and thwarting of the psychological needs and the type and level of motivation
    • Self-Determination Theory can be misinterpreted and misused, as it can be confused with other concepts such as self-indulgence, self-interest, or self-reliance, that can undermine the psychological needs and the optimal functioning and well-being of individuals and groups
    • Self-Determination Theory can be challenged and criticized as being too idealistic, optimistic, or unrealistic, that can ignore or neglect the realities and complexities of human nature and society

Therefore, it is important to understand and apply Self-Determination Theory with caution and care, and to consider its benefits and challenges for individuals and society.

Conclusion

Self-determination theory is a psychological framework that explains how people are motivated by their innate needs and interests. It proposes that people have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, people experience optimal growth, well-being, and happiness. When these needs are thwarted, people experience negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

Self-Determination Theory distinguishes between different types and sources of motivation, based on the degree of autonomy and self-determination that they involve. Motivation can be classified into two broad categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something for its own sake, because it is interesting, enjoyable, or satisfying. Extrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something for an external reason, such as a reward, a punishment, or a pressure. Self-Determination Theory suggests that people can move from lower to higher levels of self-determined motivation, through a process of internalization and integration.

Self-Determination Theory has been applied to various domains and contexts, such as education, work, health, and sports, to understand and improve the motivation and well-being of individuals and groups. This theoretical framework has many benefits and challenges for individuals and society, as it provides a comprehensive and empirically supported theory of human motivation and well-being, that can be applied to various domains and contexts.

Self-Determination Theory is a powerful and useful theory that can help us understand ourselves and others, and how we can achieve our goals and enhance our well-being. By supporting and nurturing our psychological needs and self-determined motivation, we can live a more fulfilling and satisfying life.