What Is Self-Determination Theory? Definition and Examples

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Self-determination theory is a psychological framework for understanding human motivation. It was developed by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci and grew out of research on intrinsic motivation, or the internal desire to do something for its own sake, not for an external reward. Self-determination theory states that people are driven by three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Key Takeaways: Self-Determination Theory

  • Self-determination theory identifies three basic needs as essential to psychological health and well-being: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
  • Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are the far ends of a continuum. Deci and Ryan developed self-determination theory as a way to understand the intrinsic end of the motivational spectrum.
  • The theory emphasizes the benefits of acting out of internal drives. It assumes that the individual is able to take action based on personal goals and values.

Origins in Intrinsic Motivation

In the 1970s, Edward Deci conducted research on intrinsic motivation. In these experiments he contrasted intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation, or the drive to do something for the reward it will bring, whether that’s money, praise, or something else one desires. For example, he asked two groups of college students to solve mechanical puzzles. One of the groups was told they would receive a dollar for every puzzle they completed. The other group was told nothing about a reward. After a period of time, the two groups were given a free period where they could choose what they wanted to do from a series of activities. The group that was promised a monetary reward played with the puzzles during this free period significantly less than the group that was not promised a reward. The paid group also found the puzzles less interesting and enjoyable than the group that wasn’t paid. 

Deci’s studies and similar investigations by other researchers demonstrated that intrinsic motivation can be diminished by external rewards. When a reward is introduced, Deci suggested, people no longer see a reason to do an activity for its own sake and instead see the activity as a means to the external reward. Thus, by shifting the reason the individual does something from intrinsic to extrinsic, the task becomes less interesting because the reasons for doing it now come from outside the self.

Of course, this doesn’t extend to all external rewards. If an activity is boring, a reward may serve as an incentive that enables people to improve their engagement in the task. Also, social rewards like praise and encouragement can actually increase intrinsic motivation.

These examples demonstrate that intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are not rigid categories. They are actually the far ends of a continuum. Motivations may be more internal or more external depending on the circumstances. For instance, an individual might internalize the goal of going to the gym to work out after encouragement from the social world. In this case, the individual might be intrinsically motivated by the enjoyment of their gym activities but they are also extrinsically motivated by the positive perceptions people have of those who work out regularly.

Deci and his colleague Richard Ryan developed self-determination theory as a way to understand the intrinsic end of the motivational spectrum. The theory emphasizes the benefits of acting out of internal, instead of external, drives. It views the individual as active and agentic and therefore able to take action based on personal goals and values.

Basic Needs

Ryan and Deci define basic psychological needs as “nutriments” that are essential for psychological growth and mental health. In self-determination theory, basic psychological needs serve as the basis for personality growth and integration, well-being, and positive social development. The theory identifies three specific needs, which are considered universal and applicable throughout the lifespan. Those three needs are:

Autonomy

Autonomy is the ability to feel independent and able to act on the world in a way that matches one’s desires. If the individual lacks autonomy, he or she feels controlled by forces that are not in line with who they are, whether those forces are internal or external. Of the three needs of self-determination theory, autonomy is the least accepted as a basic psychological need. Psychologists who object to its classification as a need believe that if people are controlled and not autonomous they will not suffer unhealthy outcomes or pathology. Therefore, from the perspective of these scholars, autonomy does not meet the criteria for a need outlined by Ryan and Deci.

Competence

Competence is the ability to feel effective in what one does. When an individual feels competent they feel a sense of mastery over their environment and feel confident in their capabilities. Competence is increased when one is given opportunities to exercise their skills in challenges that are optimally matched to their abilities. If tasks are too hard or too easy, feelings of competence will decrease.

Relatedness

Relatedness is the ability to feel connected with others and a sense of belonging. In order to have one’s relatedness needs met, they must feel important to the other individuals in their orbit. This may be achieved through one person exhibiting care for another.

According to self-determination theory, all three needs must be met for optimal psychological functioning. So if one's environment meets some needs but not others, well-being will still be negatively impacted. Furthermore, these needs affect well-being even if people aren’t aware of them or their culture doesn’t value them. One way or another, if these needs aren’t met, psychological health will suffer. On the other hand, if the individual is able to meet these three needs, they are considered self-determined and will be mentally healthy.

Basic Needs in Real-World Settings

Research on self-determination theory has shown the importance of the three basic needs in a variety of domains, from work and school to sports and politics. For example, research has shown that students of all ages from elementary school to college respond best to teachers who support their autonomy. These students demonstrate greater intrinsic motivation in the classroom and typically learn better. They also experience greater well-being. This has also been demonstrated in the context of parenting. Parents who are more controlling have children who are less interested and persistent and who don’t perform as well as the children of parents who support their children’s autonomy. 

Autonomy is also important in the workplace. Studies have indicated that managers who support their employees’ autonomy increase the employees' trust in their company and satisfaction with their jobs. In addition, supporting employees’ autonomy results in employees who feel that their needs are satisfied in general. These employees also experience less anxiety.

Enhancing Self-Determination

Self-determination theory is based on one’s ability to meet intrinsic needs and be true to their own values and desires. However, self-determination can be enhanced by focusing on the following:

  • Improve self-awareness through self-examination and reflection
  • Set goals and create plans to achieve them
  • Improve problem-solving and decision-making skills
  • Improve self-regulation through mindfulness or other techniques
  • Find social support and connect with others
  • Gain mastery over areas that have meaning for you

Sources

  • Ackerman, C, and Nhu Tran. “What is the Self-Determination Theory of Motivation?” Positve Psychology Program, 14 February 2019. https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/self-determination-theory/#work-self-determination
  • Baumeister, Roy F. “The Self.” Advanced Social Psychology: The State of the Science, edited by Roy F. Baumeister and Eli J. Finkel, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 139-175.
  • Cherry, Kendra. “What is Self-Determination Theory.” Verywell Mind, 26 October 2018. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-self-determination-theory-2795387
  • McAdams, Dan. The Person: An Introduction to the Science of Personality Psychology. 5th ed., Wiley, 2008.
  • Ryan, Richard M. and Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist, vol. 55, no. 1, 2000, pp. 68-78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68
  • Ryan, Richard M. and Edward L. Deci. “Self-Determination Theory and the Role of Basic Psychological Needs in Personality and the Organization of Behavior.” Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research. 3rd ed., edited by Oliver P. John, Richard W. Robins, and Lawrence A. Pervin. The Guilford Press, 2008, pp. 654-678.