Self-Determination Theory

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Self-Determination Theory


Self-determination theory (SDT) is a macro-theory of human motivation, personality development, and well-being. The theory focuses especially on volitional or self-determined behavior and the conditions that promote it, as well as a set of basic and universal psychological needs, namely those for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, the fulfillment of which is considered essential to vital, healthy human functioning.

SDT begins with the assumption that people are active organisms, with inherent tendencies toward psychological growth and development. This active nature is manifest in the phenomenon of intrinsic motivation, the innate tendency to seek out novelty, challenges, and opportunities to learn. It is also evident in the phenomenon of internalization, or the tendency of persons to adopt, and attempt to integrate, ambient social mores and values.

Although the growth tendencies underlying intrinsic motivation and internalization are natural, this does not mean that they operate automatically. Instead, these propensities require nutriments from the social environment. These are specified using the concept of basic psychological needs, defined as those supports that are essential and necessary for psychological health. Within SDT there are but three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. When these needs are supported and satisfied within a social context, people experience more vitality and self-motivation, as well as enhanced well-being. Conversely, the neglect or thwarting of basic needs is implicated in most forms of psychopathology and maladjustment (Ryan, Deci, Grolnick, and LaGuardia 2006).

SDT has evolved as a set of four mini-theories. Each mini-theory was developed to explain a set of motivationally based phenomena that emerged from laboratory and field research.

Cognitive evaluation theory (CET) addresses the effects of social contexts on intrinsic motivation. It stresses the importance of autonomy and competence, and it specifically addresses how factors such as rewards, deadlines, feedback, and pressure affect feelings of autonomy and competence and thus enhance or undermine intrinsic motivation.

Organismic integration theory (OIT) addresses the process of internalization of extrinsic motivation. Here the focus is on the continuum of internalization, extending from external regulation to introjection, identification, and integration. These forms of regulation, which can be simultaneously operative, differ in their relative autonomy, and the more autonomous the overall motivation, the greater the persons persistence, performance, and well-being. OIT further suggests that internalization and integration is facilitated by contextual supports for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Causality orientations theory (COT) describes individual differences in how people orient to different aspects of the environment in regulating behavior. When autonomy-oriented, people orient to what interests them and act with congruence; when control-oriented, people primarily regulate behavior by orienting to social controls and reward contingencies; and when impersonally oriented, people focus on their lack of personal control or competence.

Finally, basic psychological needs theory (BPNT) elaborates the concept of basic needs. BPNT posits that each need exerts independent effects on wellness and, moreover, that the impact of any behavior or event on well-being is largely a function of its relations with need satisfaction. Based on BPNT, for example, research has shown that materialism and other extrinsic goals such as fame or image do not enhance well-being, even when one is successful at attaining them. By contrast, goals such as personal growth or giving to ones community are conducive to need satisfaction, and thus facilitate health and wellness.

Together these four mini-theories constitute SDT. Given its scope, SDT has also spawned active research in numerous areas. One controversial issue has been the impact of rewards, which CET argues can powerfully control behavior, but often at the cost of intrinsic motivation. Another controversy is the cross-cultural generalizability of SDT. SDT suggests that whether collectivist or individualist, Eastern or Western, people function most effectively and experience greater mental health when their behavior is autonomously regulated. Still another issue has been the characterization of well-being. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci (2001) maintained that wellness is not well captured by hedonic measures of happiness. Instead, SDT employs the concept of eudaimonia, or wellness defined as the vital, full functioning, as a complementary approach. Finally, because autonomy is facilitated by reflective awareness, SDT stresses the role of mindfulness (Brown and Ryan 2003) in self-regulation and wellness.

The practical implications of SDT in healthcare, education, work, parenting, psychotherapy, religion, and sport contexts are manifold, and the theory has catalyzed considerable applied research and numerous interventions (see Ryan, Deci, Grolnick, and LaGuardia 2006; Deci and Ryan 2000).

SEE ALSO Psychology, Agency in


Brown, Kirk W., and Richard M. Ryan. 2003. The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84: 822848.

Deci, Edward L., and Richard M. Ryan. 2000. The What and Why of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry 11: 227268.

Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. 2001. To Be Happy or To Be Self-Fulfilled: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being. In Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 52, ed. Susan T. Fiske, 141166. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.

Ryan, Richard M., Edward L. Deci, Wendy S. Grolnick, and Jennifer G. LaGuardia. 2006. The Significance of Autonomy and Autonomy Support in Psychological Development and Psychopathology. In Theory and Methods. Vol. 1 of Developmental Psychopathology, 2nd ed., eds. Dante Cicchetti and Donald J. Cohen, 795849. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Richard M. Ryan

Edward L. Deci