Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

Self-Determination Theory focuses on psychological needs that drive human behavior & the different types of motivation that can arise.

Table of Contents

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a theory of human motivation and personality development that was introduced in the 1970s by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. The theory focuses on the basic psychological needs that drive human behavior and the different types of motivation that can arise from these needs.

SDT has become a popular theory in psychology, and its principles have been applied in various fields, including education, sports, and healthcare.

In this article, we will provide a detailed explanation of SDT, its importance, and its history.

What is Self-Determination Theory?

SDT proposes that humans have three basic psychological needs that drive their behavior: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

  • Autonomy: This refers to the need to have control over one’s actions and decisions. Individuals who feel autonomous are more likely to feel a sense of ownership over their behavior and are more likely to engage in activities that are aligned with their values and interests.
  • Competence: This refers to the need to feel effective and capable in one’s actions. Individuals who feel competent are more likely to persist in their activities and seek out challenges that can help them develop new skills.
  • Relatedness: This refers to the need to feel connected to others and to have a sense of belonging. Individuals who feel relatedness are more likely to engage in activities that involve social interaction and to seek out supportive relationships.

SDT proposes that when individuals have these needs met, they are more likely to experience well-being, positive emotions, and engagement in their activities.

Importance of Self-Determination Theory

SDT is an important theory because it provides insight into the factors that drive human behavior and motivation. By understanding the basic psychological needs that underlie behavior, researchers and practitioners can design interventions that promote well-being, engagement, and optimal performance.

For example, in the field of education, SDT has been used to design teaching strategies that promote autonomy, competence, and relatedness among students. By providing students with choices and opportunities to engage in activities that align with their interests and values, educators can promote a sense of ownership over learning and increase student engagement.

Basic Principles of Self-Determination Theory

In the previous section, we discussed the basic premise of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which states that humans have three basic psychological needs that drive their behavior: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

In this section, we will delve deeper into these needs and the different types of motivation that can arise from them.

Three Basic Psychological Needs

1. Autonomy

Autonomy refers to the need to have control over one’s actions and decisions. Individuals who feel autonomous are more likely to feel a sense of ownership over their behavior and are more likely to engage in activities that are aligned with their values and interests.

Some examples of autonomy-supportive behaviors include:

  • Providing individuals with choices and options
  • Encouraging individuals to express their opinions and preferences
  • Offering opportunities for self-directed learning and exploration

2. Competence

Competence refers to the need to feel effective and capable in one’s actions. Individuals who feel competent are more likely to persist in their activities and seek out challenges that can help them develop new skills.

Some examples of competence-supportive behaviors include:

  • Providing feedback that focuses on effort and improvement rather than ability
  • Encouraging individuals to set challenging but achievable goals
  • Providing opportunities for skill-building and mastery experiences

3. Relatedness

Relatedness refers to the need to feel connected to others and to have a sense of belonging. Individuals who feel relatedness are more likely to engage in activities that involve social interaction and to seek out supportive relationships.

Some examples of relatedness-supportive behaviors include:

  • Providing opportunities for social interaction and collaboration
  • Encouraging individuals to build supportive relationships
  • Creating a sense of community and shared identity

Types of Motivation

SDT proposes that there are three types of motivation that can arise from the basic psychological needs: intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and amotivation.

1. Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to the motivation that arises from within an individual. It is driven by a sense of interest, enjoyment, or personal satisfaction in an activity.

Intrinsic motivation is often associated with behaviors that are aligned with an individual’s values and interests, and it is more likely to lead to sustained engagement and optimal performance.

Some examples of intrinsic motivation include:

  • A musician who practices an instrument because they enjoy the process of learning and improving
  • A student who studies a subject because they find it fascinating and want to learn more
  • An athlete who trains because they love the feeling of pushing themselves to their limits

2. Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to the motivation that arises from external rewards or punishments. It is driven by the desire to receive a reward or avoid a punishment.

Extrinsic motivation can be further divided into four types:

  • External regulation: This refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards or punishments. For example, a student who studies for a test because they want to receive a good grade.
  • Introjected regulation: This refers to behavior that is driven by internal pressure or guilt. For example, a person who exercises because they feel guilty about not being active.
  • Identified regulation: This refers to behavior that is motivated by a sense of importance or value. For example, a person who volunteers because they believe it is important to give back to their community.
  • Integrated regulation: This refers to behavior that is fully integrated with an individual’s values and interests. For example, a person who practices mindfulness because they believe it aligns with their personal values.

3. Amotivation

Amotivation refers to a lack of motivation or interest in an activity. It can arise when an individual’s basic psychological needs are not¬†being met or when they feel that their efforts are not leading to meaningful outcomes.

Some examples of amotivation include:

  • A student who feels disengaged from their coursework and does not see the relevance of their studies.
  • An employee who is not invested in their work and feels that their efforts are not valued or appreciated.
  • A person who has lost interest in a hobby that used to bring them joy.

Theoretical Framework of Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory is based on two primary theoretical frameworks: Cognitive Evaluation Theory and Organismic Integration Theory.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory

Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) proposes that the key determinant of intrinsic motivation is an individual’s perception of the environment as supportive of their psychological needs. CET emphasizes the importance of perceived autonomy support in promoting intrinsic motivation.

1. Concept of Perceived Autonomy Support

Perceived autonomy support refers to an individual’s perception that their environment supports their sense of autonomy. This includes feeling that they have choice and control over their actions, that their actions align with their values and interests, and that their efforts are recognized and valued by others.

Research has shown that individuals who perceive greater autonomy support from their environment are more likely to be intrinsically motivated and to experience greater well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2017).

2. The Role of Competence and Relatedness in Cognitive Evaluation Theory

While perceived autonomy support is a key factor in promoting intrinsic motivation, CET also emphasizes the importance of competence and relatedness. Competence refers to an individual’s sense of effectiveness and mastery in their activities, while relatedness refers to an individual’s sense of social connection and belonging.

When individuals feel competent and effective in their activities, they are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation. Similarly, when individuals feel a sense of social connection and belonging, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated (Deci & Ryan, 2017).

Organismic Integration Theory

Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) proposes that there are different types of extrinsic motivation, ranging from controlled to autonomous forms of motivation. OIT emphasizes the importance of internalization, or the process by which individuals adopt extrinsic motivations as their own, in promoting autonomous forms of motivation.

1. Integration of Extrinsic Motivation

OIT proposes that there are four levels of extrinsic motivation, ranging from external regulation (the most controlled form of motivation) to integrated regulation (the most autonomous form of motivation).

External regulation refers to behavior that is controlled by external rewards or punishments. Introjected regulation refers to behavior that is motivated by internal pressures, such as guilt or shame. Identified regulation refers to behavior that is valued and seen as important by the individual, while integrated regulation refers to behavior that is fully integrated with the individual’s sense of self and identity.

2. The Role of Psychological Needs in Organismic Integration Theory

OIT emphasizes the importance of psychological needs in promoting internalization and autonomous forms of motivation. Specifically, OIT proposes that individuals are more likely to internalize extrinsic motivations when those motivations support their psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Research has shown that individuals who experience greater psychological need satisfaction are more likely to internalize extrinsic motivations and to experience greater autonomous motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2017).

Empirical Research on Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has been the subject of extensive empirical research, with studies examining the theory’s basic principles, theoretical frameworks, and applications in various contexts. This section highlights some of the key findings from cross-cultural studies and applications of SDT.

Cross-Cultural Studies

1. Basic Psychological Needs Across Cultures

One of the strengths of SDT is its cross-cultural applicability, as the theory’s basic principles of autonomy, competence, and relatedness have been found to be universal psychological needs across cultures. Numerous studies have demonstrated the universality of these needs, including studies conducted in the United States, Japan, China, Korea, and other countries (Ryan et al., 1999).

However, while the basic psychological needs are universal, the ways in which they are expressed and valued may vary across cultures. For example, autonomy may be valued differently in collectivistic cultures compared to individualistic cultures (Chirkov et al., 2003). As a result, cultural factors may influence the way that individuals pursue and satisfy their psychological needs.

2. Effects of Culture on Motivation

Research has shown that cultural factors can have a significant impact on motivation, with some cultures emphasizing intrinsic motivations and others emphasizing extrinsic motivations. For example, research has shown that individuals from individualistic cultures are more likely to value intrinsic motivation, while those from collectivistic cultures may place more value on external rewards and social pressures (Vansteenkiste et al., 2010).

However, the importance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness as basic psychological needs remains consistent across cultures, and these needs can serve as a basis for understanding and promoting motivation across diverse cultural contexts.

Applications of Self-Determination Theory

1. Education

SDT has been applied extensively in educational settings, with research showing that autonomy-supportive teaching practices can promote intrinsic motivation, engagement, and achievement among students (Reeve & Jang, 2006). Autonomy-supportive teaching practices involve providing choice, fostering a sense of personal relevance, and acknowledging students’ perspectives and feelings.

Studies have shown that autonomy-supportive teaching practices can be effective in a variety of educational settings, from elementary school to higher education, and across different subject areas (Vansteenkiste et al., 2012). In addition, research has shown that autonomy-supportive practices can be effective for promoting motivation and learning in online and blended learning environments (Bouckaert et al., 2018).

2. Sports

SDT has also been applied in sports contexts, with research showing that autonomy-supportive coaching practices can promote intrinsic motivation, effort, and performance among athletes (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003). Autonomy-supportive coaching involves providing athletes with choice, fostering a sense of personal relevance and value, and acknowledging their perspectives and feelings.

Studies have shown that autonomy-supportive coaching practices can be effective in promoting motivation and performance across different sports and levels of competition, from youth sports to professional sports (Amorose & Anderson-Butcher, 2007).

3. Health and Wellness

SDT has also been applied in health and wellness contexts, with research showing that autonomy-supportive approaches can promote motivation and behavior change in areas such as physical activity, diet, and smoking cessation (Teixeira et al., 2012).

Autonomy-supportive approaches involve fostering a sense of choice and control, acknowledging the individual’s values and feelings, and providing information and support in a non-judgmental manner. Studies have shown that autonomy-supportive approaches can be effective in promoting sustained behavior change and improving health outcomes (Ryan & Deci, 2017).

Criticisms and Limitations of Self-Determination Theory

While Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has received widespread acceptance and has been supported by empirical research, there are some criticisms and limitations that need to be acknowledged. In this section, we will discuss some of the critiques of SDT.

Overgeneralization of Basic Psychological Needs

One of the main criticisms of SDT is that the theory overgeneralizes the concept of basic psychological needs. Critics argue that the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness may not be universally applicable to all cultures and individuals. Some cultural and individual differences may affect how people interpret and experience these needs.

Lack of Attention to Social and Cultural Contexts

Another criticism of SDT is that the theory does not adequately account for the influence of social and cultural contexts on motivation. Critics argue that the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness may be influenced by cultural norms, socialization practices, and institutional structures. For example, in collectivistic cultures, the need for relatedness may be more salient than the need for autonomy.

Overemphasis on Intrinsic Motivation

SDT places a strong emphasis on intrinsic motivation and tends to undervalue extrinsic motivation. Critics argue that this overemphasis on intrinsic motivation may be unrealistic and overlooks the importance of extrinsic rewards in shaping behavior. Extrinsic motivation can be an important source of motivation for individuals, particularly in contexts where intrinsic motivation may not be sufficient to sustain engagement.

While these criticisms are important to consider, they do not detract from the significant contributions that SDT has made to our understanding of motivation and human functioning. As SDT continues to evolve, it will be important to address these limitations and refine the theory to better account for cultural and individual differences in motivation.

Summary of Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a framework for understanding human motivation and behavior. Developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, SDT proposes that individuals have three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These needs are essential for personal growth, well-being, and optimal functioning.

SDT also distinguishes between three types of motivation: intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and amotivation. Intrinsic motivation is driven by internal factors, while extrinsic motivation is driven by external rewards or pressures. Amotivation refers to a lack of motivation or a disinterest in a task or behavior.

The theoretical framework of SDT consists of two main theories: Cognitive Evaluation Theory and Organismic Integration Theory. Cognitive Evaluation Theory explains how social and contextual factors can influence intrinsic motivation, while Organismic Integration Theory explains how extrinsic motivation can be integrated and internalized to become more autonomous.

Future Research Directions

While SDT has been extensively researched and validated over the years, there are still areas where further research is needed. Some potential future research directions for SDT include:

  • Further exploration of the cultural and individual differences in basic psychological needs and their implications for motivation.
  • Examination of the role of autonomy support in different contexts and its effects on motivation and well-being.
  • Investigation of the relationship between SDT constructs and other psychological constructs, such as personality traits and emotions.

Overall, SDT has made significant contributions to our understanding of human motivation and behavior. As research continues to evolve, SDT will continue to be a valuable framework for understanding the factors that drive behavior and well-being.

10 Sources

Amorose, A. J., & Anderson-Butcher, D. (2007). Autonomy-supportive coaching and self-determined motivation in high school and college athletes: A test of self-determination theory. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8(5), 654-670.

Bouckaert, R. R., Vansteenkiste, M., Sierens, E., Lens, W., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Predicting elementary school students’ academic achievement: The role of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 53, 10-19.

Chirkov, V., Ryan, R. M., Kim, Y., & Kaplan, U. (2003). Differentiating autonomy from individualism and independence: A self-determination theory perspective on internalization of cultural orientations and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(1), 97-110.

Mageau, G. A., & Vallerand, R. J. (2003). The coach-athlete relationship: A motivational model. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21(11), 883-904.

Reeve, J., & Jang, H. (2006). What teachers say and do to support students’ autonomy during a learning activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 209-218.

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Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L., & Grolnick, W. S. (1997). The significance of autonomy and autonomy support in psychological development and psychopathology. In N. Eisenberg & R. A. Barkley (Eds.), Social and personality development (pp. 795-849). Guilford Press.

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Lens, W., Sheldon, K. M., & Deci, E. L. (2004). Motivating learning, performance, and persistence: The synergistic effects of intrinsic goal contents and autonomy-supportive contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 246-260.

Vansteenkiste, M., Zhou, M., Lens, W., Soenens, B., & Exterkate, M. (2020). Understanding the universal and culturally specific aspects of motivation and self-regulation through comparative research. International Journal of Psychology, 55(2), 155-165.

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