What Is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-determined man
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Self-determination theory suggests that people are motivated to grow and change by innate psychological needs. The theory identifies three key psychological needs that are believed to be both innate and universal: the needs for competence, connectedness and autonomy. The concept of intrinsic motivation, or doing things purely for their own sake, plays an important role in self-determination theory.

Self-Determination Theory: A Closer Look

Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed a theory of motivation which suggests that people tend to be driven by a need to grow and gain fulfillment. The first assumption of self-determination theory is that people are activity directed toward growth. Gaining mastery over challenges and taking in new experiences are essential for developing a cohesive sense of self.

While people are often motivated to act by external rewards such as money, prizes, and acclaim (known as extrinsic motivation), self-determination theory focuses primarily on internal sources of motivation such as a need to gain knowledge or independence (known as intrinsic motivation).

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

  • Competence: People need to gain mastery of tasks and learn different skills.
  • Connection or Relatedness: People need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people.
  • Autonomous: People need to feel in control of their own behaviors and goals.

Deci and Ryan suggest that when people experience these three things, they become self-determined and able to be intrinsically motivated to pursue the things that interest them.

How Self-Determination Theory Works

How exactly do people go about fulfilling these three needs?

It is important to realize that the psychological growth described by self-determination theory does not simply happen automatically. While people might be oriented toward such growth, it requires continuous sustenance. According to Deci and Ryan, social support is the key. Through our relationships and interactions with others, we can either foster or thwart well-being and personal growth.

What other things that can help or hinder the three elements needed for growth?

According to Deci, giving people extrinsic rewards for already intrinsically motivated behavior can undermine autonomy. As the behavior becomes increasingly controlled by the external rewards, people begin to feel less in control of their own behavior and intrinsic motivation is diminished.

Deci also suggests that offering unexpected positive encouragement and feedback on a person's performance on a task can increase intrinsic motivation.

Why? Because such feedback helps people to feel more competent, one of the key needs for personal growth.

Observations About Self-Determination Theory

  • "SDT begins by embracing the assumption that all individuals have natural, innate, and constructive tendencies to develop an ever more elaborated and unified sense of self. That is, we assume people have a primary propensity to forge interconnections among aspects of their own psyches as well as with other individuals and groups in their social worlds."
    (Deci& Ryan, 2002)
  • "Social environments can, according to this perspective, either facilitate and enable the growth and integration propensities with which the human psyche is endowed, or they can disrupt, forestall, and fragment these processes resulting in behaviors and inner experiences that represent the darker side of humanity."
    (Deci and Ryan, 2002)

Learn more about some other theories of motivation.


Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105–115.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

Deci, E. D., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. New York: University of Rochester Press.

Ryan, R. M., &Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

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