Self Determination Theory
The Basic Idea
Goals drive our lives. We all want to succeed, and we usually understand exactly what we need to do to do so. But, even though we wake up each day with things we want to accomplish, we often don’t try to achieve them. Why is this the case?
Sometimes, we’re simply just not motivated. In a world driven by goals, failure of this sort can be confusing. Why is it that your friend could pick up the guitar in a manner of weeks, but your guitar sat collecting dust? Why could they find the motivation to practice, but you couldn’t? This isn’t just an individual problem. Across the world, teachers, coaches, managers, parents, and mentors try to motivate others to no avail.
To motivate ourselves, we often rely on external rewards. Using money, grades, or others’ judgment can spur behavioral change, but it typically isn’t lasting or psychologically beneficial. On the other hand, people just as often seem to do things free of external motivators, driven by personal interest, curiosity, or internal values. This motivation facilitates our goals, as we don’t need to pull ourselves off the couch to work on things we’re interested in. Is it possible to harness that inherent human motivation to propel us towards achieving our goals?
Self-determination theory (SDT) is an overarching theory of motivation that explains why we feel intrinsically motivated to do things. SDT views human beings as active agents, constantly growing and striving within their social confines. According to the theory, our social and cultural environment can foster different motivational environments, which can either promote or thwart our intrinsic motivation. Across environments, however, the theory argues that we are fundamentally motivated by 3 things:
- Autonomy: The need to feel as if one agrees with and feels in control of their own behavior.
- Relatedness: The need to feel meaningfully connected to others.
- Competence: The need to feel that one does things well or is able to improve one’s ability.
In essence, a person will feel intrinsically motivated to achieve a goal if it supports an individual’s autonomy, shows tangible improvement over time, or bolsters one’s interpersonal relationships1. Taken together, the achievement of these three motives propels us towards personal growth and goal completion, but in a way that lasts and boosts well-being. Furthermore, if our environment thwarts these three fundamental needs, psychological issues will follow. In essence, the theory proposes that we can complete our goals easier by building our own environments and goal structures to meet our three basic needs.
Intrinsic motivation: Motivation that comes from performing an activity for its own sake, such as enjoyment or interest. In essence, doing the behavior is a reward itself.
Extrinsic motivation: Motivation that comes from external forces. Some examples include financial rewards, praise, or avoiding punishment.
Autonomy: The need to feel and act in harmony with oneself. Importantly, autonomy in SDT is defined by a person’s ability to do what they want to do, rather than being a “lone wolf” or completely independent of others.
In 1977, two unlikely young academics happened to cross paths at the University of Rochester. Despite hitting it off immediately, the duo had no idea how their combined contributions would come to redefine our understanding of motivation psychology, as well as the human experience itself.
Edward Deci, an experimental psychology professor at the university, was somewhat of a rebel in academia. Deci was trained in behaviorism, the then-prevailing view that the most effective way to get people to do things was to reward them after they behaved preferably. Of course, this worked in some instances, but Deci, who was fascinated by motivation, believed that this was an inadequate model. In 1971, Deci set out to prove this in his famous SOMA cube experiment.
In this experiment, Deci gave two groups a fun, mathematical puzzle called a SOMA cube. One group was paid to complete the puzzle, while the other group was unpaid. When they completed the puzzle, Deci would say that he needed to step out for a few minutes and that the participant should entertain themselves until he came back. For entertainment, the participants could choose to read some magazines or go back to the SOMA puzzle. Secretly recording the participants, Deci observed that the participants paid to complete the puzzle tended to peruse the magazines in their spare time, whereas those unpaid would go back to the SOMA cube puzzle. Flying in the face of behaviorism, this simple experiment showed that rewards may actually disincentivize behavior.
Despite the fascinating results of his experiment, Deci remained an outcast. Very few academics shared Deci’s views on motivation, and he had already made many academic enemies in the behaviorist community. Then one day Deci bumped into Richard Ryan on the University of Rochester campus, and that perception changed. Ryan, who had a background in philosophy and had recently begun the clinical psychology graduate program at the university, was also fascinated by motivation. He was particularly interested in experimentally testing clinical solutions for motivation-based psychological issues and countering the behaviorist reward structure narrative.
Meshing well together, the two decided to embark on a multi-year experimental journey that eventually culminated in their 1985 work Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior, which outlined the central tenets of self-determination theory, as well as the mountain of evidence they had acquired to support it. In essence, the studies produced an overarching view of human motivation that outlined why people do what they do and how that pursuit is linked to well-being2,3.
Today, self-determination theory dominates the field of motivational psychology. There are practitioners of it across the globe, and the field is only growing 4. As far as non-neurological psychological theories go, self-determination theory is one of the closest things to “true” due to the substantial evidence that has been accumulated in such a short period of time.
One of the most distinctive features of self-determination theory is its vast applicability: early education, organizational psychology, user experience, health interventions, parenting, close relationships, motivational psychotherapy, and unhealthy behavior mitigation have all benefited from applying it5. Across these disciplines, when autonomy, relatedness, and competence are factored into the environment, we see improved well-being, decision-making, and intrinsic motivation.
The widespread utility of self-determination theory seems to reinforce the “fundamental” aspect of the three fundamental needs Indeed, the theory provides insight into big existential questions: what is the meaning of our lives? Why do we do the things we do? What makes us happy?
For years, philosophers have puzzled about these gigantic questions, each coming up with their own compelling, logical cases. However, self-determination theory stands out from those philosophical approaches, as it tackles these questions in both a humanistic and scientific way. Tracing together a scientifically compelling narrative that acknowledges our core internal drives and the unique environments that can compel individual meaning, happiness, and motivation, the growing field of self-determination theory may help unravel large individual and existential questions. Perhaps, with an understanding of self-determination theory in your back pocket, you may soon be on the way to finding the answers to yours.
While self-determination theory is compelling and well-substantiated, it certainly isn’t perfect. Being both a new and well-researched theory, formal critiques of the theory haven’t accumulated. However, we can infer from the theory itself some potential issues.
While the evidence seems to validate three fundamental motives, it is difficult to determine if these three motives are exhaustive. After all, many theories of core psychological motives assert that they have unearthed the key to what makes people tick. Competitors include Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Murray’s psychogenic needs,6 16 Basic Desires theory,7 and many more. While none of these have the same level of evidence behind them, it seems reasonable to assume that equally valid motives can be discovered in the future.
There is also the question of autonomy. If autonomy means freeing people from deadlines, grades, and anything else they don’t want to do, how will we get hard things done? We know that providing too much choice can overwhelm us, and we also know that people’s autonomous interests aren’t always compatible with broader societal development. For example, if you are intrinsically motivated to work out and love nothing more than to pass your days in the gym, that’s great! But how do your daily workouts improve the well-being of others? Sometimes, to progress as a collective, we all have to do things we don’t like. While freeing people from coercion benefits us individually, it may not be the best option for society.
Overall, self-determination theory is highly promising due to its minimal criticisms and controversies, paired with the hundreds of studies that demonstrate its practicality. However, in its relatively young stage, there is certainly room to grow, develop, or iron out any philosophical or prescriptive issues that it may run into. Once this occurs, self-determination theory could prove to be a bedrock of the psychological canon.
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- CSDT. (n.d.). The theory. selfdeterminationtheory.org. https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/the-theory/.
- McCally, K. (n.d.). Self-Determined. Rochester Review: University of Rochester. https://www.rochester.edu/pr/Review/V72N6/0401_feature1.html.
- O’Hara, D. (2017, December 18). The intrinsic motivation of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/members/content/intrinsic-motivation.
- See 2.
- See 1.
- Murray, H. A. (2007). Variables of personality. Explorations in Personality, 142–242. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195305067.003.0003
- Reiss, S. (2000). Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Action and Define Our Personalities (, 2000). Tarcher/Putnam.