Self-Determination Theory and Human Motivation

Self-determination is often motivated by interests, curiosity, care, or abiding values, even when such motivations aren't rewarded or supported at times. However, they can sustain the flame of passion, creativity, and effort.
Self-Determination Theory and Human Motivation
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Self-determination theory (SDT) is often part of the diplomatic and political context that describes the process that a country undergoes in order to ascertain its independence. However, self-determination also has a much more personal and relevant meaning in psychology: it’s the process of making one’s own decisions and controlling one’s own life. In fact, self-determination is a vital part of psychological well-being.

Self-determination theory suggests that people’s motivation to grow and change stems from purely innate psychological needs. Furthermore, this theory identifies three innate and universal psychological needs:

  • Competence
  • Relatedness
  • Autonomy

Also, intrinsic motivation plays an important role in this theory.

The Meaning of Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory links personality, human motivation, and optimal functioning. It suggests that there are two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic and that they both greatly influence who we are and how we behave.

This theory emerged from Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan’s motivation research in the 70s and 80s. Even though the theory grew considerably, its basic principles stem from the book the aforementioned published in 1985 on this subject.

A person lifting their right arm.

Self-determination theory assumes that people’s activities are always directed towards growth. Mastering challenges and assimilating new experiences is essential to building a sense of self. In this regard, Deci and Ryan’s theory suggests that people’s actions are always motivated by their need to grow and get satisfaction.

People act due to a promise of external rewards, such as money, prizes, or social recognition (extrinsic motivation). However, self-determination theory focuses mainly on internal sources of motivation, such as the need to acquire knowledge or independence (intrinsic motivation).

Psychological Growth

According to self-determination theory, people need to feel the following in order to achieve psychological growth:

  • Competence. People need to master tasks and learn different skills.
  • Relatedness. People need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people or groups.
  • Autonomy. People need to feel that they control their behavior and are in charge of their goals.

Deci and Ryan suggested that when people experience those three things, they become self-determined. Furthermore, they feel intrinsically motivated to seek out that which interests them.

It’s important to keep in mind that the psychological growth described by self-determination theory doesn’t happen automatically. Still, people are oriented towards growth and it requires continuous sustenance.

According to Deci and Ryan, social support is key. Through our relationships and interactions with others, we can either encourage or impair well-being and personal growth.

Motivation and Self-Determination

According to Deci and Ryan, extrinsic motivation sprouts from an interest in external stimuli. Common sources include rating systems, employee evaluations, awards and compliments, and the respect and/or admiration of others.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation comes from within and is closely associated with the task itself. There are internal impulses that motivate you to behave in certain ways, including your core values, interests, and personal sense of morality.

A stairway to heaven.

It may seem that intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are opposite concepts. However, with an intrinsic-driving behavior that’s consistent with your own ideal and the extrinsic side that leads you to conform to the standards of others. Then, there’s another important distinction that serves to differentiate motivations.

Autonomous vs. Controlled Motivation

That’s why self-determination theory makes a distinction between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation:

  • Autonomous motivation comes from internal sources but it also includes the motivation of extrinsic sources if the individual identifies with the value of activity and thinks it’s aligned or coherent with the image they want to project.
  • Controlled motivation consists of external regulation and introjected regulation. External regulation is a type of motivation in which the individual’s behavior is directed by external rewards and punishments. Introjected regulation is a motivation that stems from partially internalized activities, values, and reasons such as avoiding shame, seeking approval, and protecting the ego.

According to self-determination theory, when an individual is driven by autonomous motivation, they’ll feel self-directed and autonomous. And when the individual is driven by controlled motivation, then they’d feel pressured to behave in a certain way and experience little to no autonomy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.