Self-determination theory (SDT) is a theory of motivation. ‘Self-determination’ is the sense that we are on control of our own lives and choices, are motivated, and can meet our potential.
The theory looks at how this state of being is achieved.
It identifies three key psychological elements that must exist for people to have optimal personal and psychological growth to achieve self-determination:
It also presents 6 stages of motivation which sit along a continuum. The goal is to reach the final stage: intrinsic motivation.
This article outlines the key features of self-determination theory.
Two Underlying Assumptions of SDT
There are two underlying assumptions of the theory that need to be established to understand how the theory sees the human psyche.
- We all desire growth. Personal growth is needed for us to develop a strong sense of self, satisfaction, and psychological fulfillment. There is a universal human desire to achieve this.
- We are all capable of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is a type of motivation that comes from within. It doesn’t rely on rewards, praise, punishments of coercion. The opposite is extrinsic motivation, which does come from external forces like a teacher giving a reward.
Based on these assumptions, the founders of this theory (Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan from the University of Rochester) conducted research to see how optimal self-determination can be achieved.
The Self-Determination Continuum
Ryan and Deci created the self-determination continuum, which splits motivation up into six categories of regulatory styles that sit upon a continuum from least motivational to most motivational.
Self-determination is maximally achieved at the ‘intrinsic regulation / intrinsic motivation’ stage.
Here are the six stages:
- Non-Regulation: You do not attempt to do a task as you have no motivation.
- External Regulation: You do a task for a reward or punishment.
- Introjected Regulation: You do a task because it boosts your ego.
- Identified Regulation: You do a task because it makes you feel better.
- Integrated Regulation: You do a task because you believe it’s right to do.
- Intrinsic Regulation: You do a task for the personal satisfaction of doing it.
|Type of Motivation
|Source of Motivation
|Lack of Control, Disinterest
|Rewards and Punishments
|Ego, Self-Reward, Self-Punishment
|Sense of Personal Importance
|Personal Identity, Sense of Obligation
|Interest, Enjoyment, Satisfaction
The Three Fundamental Needs of SDT
Central to SDT is the idea that we have three fundamental needs. Here they are in detail:
People want to feel competent. It is an unpleasant feeling when you don’t feel as if you can complete a task.
But when you feel as if you have the fundamental skills required to succeed, you’ll be more motivated to engage with the task.
This is evident in education, for example, when we give students a task that is perceived to be too hard. If it’s too hard, students will choose not to do the task. Instead, they will act evasively, not put in the effort, and maybe even skip class.
To feel competent (e.g. that we have the ability to succeed) is a requirement for us to be motivated.
See More: Competence Examples
Relatedness refers to our need to be connected to other people. Humans are social creates and require that sense that they belong to a community or group.
We need meaningful relationships and interactions in order to feel as if we are reaching our maximum potential. Deci and Ryan also state that we need to “experience caring for others” as part of our lives.
Social support is central to our development of a sense of self-determination. We can’t achieve it without a social support network.
We all feel the need to be in control of our own choices in life.
This doesn’t mean that we need to be independent, but we do want to have the agency to make choices and influence our immediate environments.
In the classroom, for example, this might involve students needing freedom of choice within tasks, such as choosing an element of the task to focus on and seeking opportunities to inject their own self-expression into class projects.
See More: Autonomy Examples
The Six Mini-Theories
There are six min-theories in SDT. Deci and Ryan have been working on this theory since the 1980s, and over this time, they developed these mini-theories to explain and extrapolate on different parts of SDT. Here is a summary of each mini-theory:
1. Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET)
Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) states that you need to feel competence and autonomy in order to have intrinsic motivation.
For example: if you are told you must do a task that you consider to be too hard, your motivation levels will be very, very low. But if you have the freedom to do a task you consider yourself capable of completing, your motivation levels will likely be much higher.
CET also looks at the impact on external forces (such as social and environmental factors) on intrinsic motivation.
We usually think of intrinsic motivation as being all about our internal desire to do something. But can something outside of our control impact that internal desire?
In general, if we’re told we must do something, our desire to do it decreases.
Think about this: if you wanted to play a tune on the piano out of the pure joy of doing it, but then someone came along just before you started to play and said they’d pay you a million dollars if you played the tune perfectly, how might you react? Would it become more stressful and less joyful to play it, knowing so much was on the line?
External factors impact intrinsic motivation.
And in general, Deci and Ryan argue that providing rewards for things you were initially intrinsically motivated to complete can be a negative influencing factor. You’re sometimes better off without the award!
Here’s another example: a child loves to clean the house. So, you start rewarding them with $5 every time they clean the house. A month later, they refuse to clean the house without the monetary reward! You’ve just changed the situation, probably for the worse!
2. Organismic Integration Theory (OIT)
Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) looks at how we learn to enjoy tasks that we might once have only completed due to rewards offered.
It is the process of going from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation over time.
Here’s an example: you started to play the piano because your mother gave you $10 every time you went to piano lessons. But over time, you got pretty good at playing the piano, and found that you’d play the piano whether you got the $10 or not.
What has happened here is a process called internalization. You moved from extrinsic motivation (only doing the task for reward) to intrinsic motivation (actually enjoying the task for its own sake).
Organismic Integration Theory is all about trying to find out the optimal conditions for internalization to occur.
The theory primarily believes that internalization tends to happen when autonomy and relatedness are present in the scenario. For example, you’re more likely to intrinsically enjoy a task when you have free choice when doing the task (or even whether to do it) and when you have close warm relationships with others when the task is taking place.
3. Causality Orientations Theory (COT)
Causality Orientations Theory (COT) talks about three ‘orientations’ that we can have.
Orientations are just ways we look at things and behave in situations. Here are the three orientations:
- The autonomy orientation – In this orientation, you are a person who is generally intrinsically motivated and feels a strong sense of self-competence;
- The control orientation – In this orientation, you are a person strongly focused on external motivation such as rewards, praise, and social status. You react strongly to tasks that you feel you are competent to complete, and that will give you ‘relatedness’ (social connections), but you don’t have much need for personal autonomy;
- Impersonal or amotivated orientation – You have general anxiety about your own competence and feel out of control in most situations, which leads to low motivation.
4. Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT)
Basic psychological needs theory states that you need to meet the three basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to succeed in life.
The theory shows that when all three needs are met, you tend to have strong intrinsic motivation, strong self-esteem, and are well-adjusted.
This theory is at the heart of SDT and has strong implications for teaching, psychology and even social policies, which should aim to ensure all three of these needs are met for general social wellbeing.
5. Goal Contents Theory (GCT)
Goal Contents Theory (GCT) looks at the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic goals.
Extrinsic goals are seen as goals that are outward-looking, such as wealth, looks, and adoration. Intrinsic goals are seen as inward-looking, such as a sense of community connectedness, personal relationships, and personal development.
The theory posits that intrinsic goals will usually lead to greater self-esteem, wellbeing, and personal wellness.
6. Relationships Motivation Theory (RMT)
Relationships Motivation Theory (RMT) states that relatedness is central to personal wellbeing.
Relatedness is about personal relationships, including family, romantic, and friendship relationships. The theory states that relationships are important for wellness and personal development.
However, it also highlights that autonomy and competence are also fostered by positive relatedness – such as when a friend or partner encourages our autonomy and self-competence.
Other Motivation Theories:
- Glossary of Motivation Theories (A to Z List)
- Expectancy-Value Theory
- Behaviorism in Education
- Keller’s ARCS Model of Motivation
- The ABC Model of Attitude
Self-determination theory remains one of the most influential theories of motivation today.
It impacts the fields of education, social work, psychology and public policy. It successfully dissects the components required for success and wellness, centrally highlighting that self-determination is the ultimate goal of intrinsic motivation.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182.
Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of happiness studies, 9(1), 139-170.
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.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]