What Is Self-Determination Theory?

How Self-Determination Influences Motivation

Self-determined man
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Self-determination refers to a person's ability to make choices and manage their own life. Being self-determined means that you feel in greater control, as opposed to being non-self-determined, which can leave you feeling that your life is controlled by others.

It states that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate (and universal) psychological needs. The concept of intrinsic motivation, or engaging in activities for the inherent reward of the behavior itself, plays an important role in this theory.

Self-determination is an important concept in psychology since it plays a role in psychological health and well-being. Promoting self-determination is also an emerging best practice when working with certain populations, such as individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Self-determination theory seeks to explain how being self-determined impacts motivation—that people feel more motivated to take action when they think that what they do will have an effect on the outcome. Learn more about how this theory works, as well as what you can do to improve your self-determination skills.

Self-determination theory suggests that people can become self-determined when their needs for competence, connection, and autonomy are fulfilled.

Self-determination theory grew out of the work of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who first introduced their ideas in their 1985 book Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior. They developed a theory of motivation that suggests people tend to be driven by a need to grow and gain fulfillment.

Assumptions of Self-Determination

Self-determination theory makes two key assumptions:

The need for growth drives behavior. The first assumption of self-determination theory is that people are actively directed toward growth. Gaining mastery over challenges and taking in new experiences are essential for developing a cohesive sense of self.

Autonomous motivation is important. 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 (intrinsic motivation).

Components of Self-Determination

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

  • Autonomy: People need to feel in control of their own behaviors and goals. This sense of being able to take direct action that will result in real change plays a major part in helping people feel self-determined.
  • Competence: People need to gain mastery of tasks and learn different skills. When people feel that they have the skills needed for success, they are more likely to take actions that will help them achieve their goals.
  • Connection or relatedness: People need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people.

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How Self-Determination Theory Works

It's important to realize that the psychological growth described by self-determination theory does not happen automatically. While people might be oriented toward such growth, it requires continual sustenance.

Ryan and Deci have suggested that the tendency to be either proactive or passive is largely influenced by the social conditions in which we are raised. Social support is key. Through our relationships and interactions with others, we can foster or thwart well-being and personal growth.

Other factors that also help or hinder the three elements needed for growth include:

  • Extrinsic motivators can sometimes lower self-determination. According to Deci, giving people extrinsic rewards for intrinsically motivated behavior can undermine autonomy. As the behavior becomes increasingly controlled by external rewards, people begin to feel less in control of their behavior and intrinsic motivation is diminished.
  • Positive feedback can boost self-determination. Deci also suggests that offering unexpected positive encouragement and feedback on a person's task performance can increase intrinsic motivation. This type of feedback helps people feel more competent, which is a key need for personal growth.

Example of Self-Determination

Imagine a person who fails to complete an important project at work. If this person is high in self-determination, they will admit their fault, believe that they can do something to fix the problem, and take action to correct the mistake.

If that same person was low in self-determination, they might instead look for other things that they can blame. They might make excuses, assign blame elsewhere, or refuse to admit their own role in not completing the project on time.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that the person low in self-determination won't feel motivated to fix the mistake. Instead, they might feel helpless to control the situation and believe that nothing that they do will have any real effect.

Self-Determined vs. Non-Self-Determined Behaviors

Self-Determined Behaviors
  • Motivated by intrinsic rewards

  • Driven by enjoyment, interest, or satisfaction

  • Feel in control

Non-Self-Determined Behaviors
  • Motivated by extrinsic rewards

  • Driven by obligation or responsibility

  • Feel a lack of control

Rather than thinking of motivation as being driven by either extrinsic or intrinsic rewards, it is often helpful to view it as a continuum between self-determined and non-self-determined behaviors.

  • On one end of the continuum are purely self-determined behaviors that tend to be intrinsically driven and done for the enjoyment of, interest in, and inherent satisfaction for the action itself.
  • On the other end are non-self-determined behaviors, which are performed only because they must be done. There is a complete lack of control on this extreme end of the scale.

If you are training to compete in a marathon, for example, you might be extrinsically motivated by a desire to gain approval from others. At the same time, you may also be intrinsically motivated by the satisfaction you gain from the activity itself. In most cases, behaviors tend to lie in the middle of the continuum.

There is also often a varying amount of external motivation, which can fuel the degree of internal motivation. People may engage in actions because they feel they have some level of personal control and the behaviors ultimately align with something that is important for their self-concept.

Most actions are not purely self-determined or non-self-determined. Instead, actions often rely on a certain degree of self-determination that may also be influenced by extrinsic motivations.

Impact of Self-Determination

The concept of self-determination has been applied to a wide variety of areas including education, work, parenting, exercise, and health. Research suggests that having high self-determination can foster success in many different domains of life.

In the Workplace

People with self-determination feel more satisfied at work while also playing a key role in that organization's success. How can employers build self-determination in their workers?

  • By allowing team members to take an active role
  • Not overusing extrinsic rewards since this can undercut intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect
  • Offering employees greater responsibilities
  • Offering support and encouragement
  • Providing employees with meaningful feedback

In Competition

In competitive settings, such as sports and athletics, fostering a sense of self-determination can motivate people to excel. Some suggest that it works, at least in part, by increasing a person's level of mental toughness.

Athletes who feel that they are capable of achieving their goals and overcoming challenges are often driven to perform better. Excelling allows them to gain a sense of competence and build mastery in skills that are enjoyable and important to them.

Researchers have also found that people with an internal sense of control are more likely to stick to a healthy diet and regular exercise regimen. 

In Social Settings

Self-determination can also play an important role in social relationships. For instance, when people are new to an online group, if their needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence (the three components of self-determination) are fulfilled, it impacts their social identity which, in turn, affects their participation behaviors.

To forge close, affectionate relationships with others, thus potentially improving self-determination:

  • Seek positive relationships with people who will support you in the pursuit of your goals.
  • Offer support and feedback to people who are part of your social circle.

In School Settings

Self-determined students are more likely to feel motivated to achieve. They also tend to feel greater levels of competence and satisfaction. Educators can help students foster a sense of self-determination and intrinsic motivation by:

  • Providing unexpected positive feedback when students perform well to help improve their feelings of competence
  • Avoiding excessive external rewards for actions students already enjoy, which helps improve their internal motivation

Self-determination can play an important role in how people function in many different areas of their lives. Feeling in control and intrinsically motivated can help people feel more committed, passionate, interested, and satisfied with the things that they do.

Traits of Self-Determined People

If you are interested in strengthening your self-determination, it is helpful to think about what a highly self-determined individual might look like. People high in self-determination tend to:

  • Believe that they have control over their own lives. Self-determined people have an internal locus of control and feel that their behaviors will have an influence on outcomes. When confronted with challenges, they feel that they can overcome them through diligence, good choices, and hard work.
  • Have high self-motivation. Someone with high self-determination doesn't rely on external rewards or punishments to motivate them to take action. Instead, they engage in behaviors because they are motivated intrinsically. They have an internal desire to set goals and work toward them.
  • Base their actions on their own goals and behaviors. In other words, people with self-motivation intentionally engage in actions that they know will bring them closer to their goals.
  • Take responsibility for their behaviors. Highly self-determined people take credit for their success but they also accept the blame for their failures. They know that they are responsible for their actions and don't shift blame elsewhere.

How to Improve Your Self-Determination

Do you want to be more self-determined? There are a few steps you can take to improve your own self-determination skills.

Improve Your Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is associated with self-determination and can even help prepare you to make more purposeful decisions. Meditation, seeking regular feedback, and writing down your thoughts and feelings are all ways to improve self-awareness.

Engage in Self-Regulation

Developing a higher level of self-determination involves also working on your self-regulation skills. Strategies that can help you better regulate yourself include being more mindful of how you feel mentally and physically, along with practicing cognitive reframing to better regulate your emotional responses.

Find Social Support

Strong social relationships can foster motivation and well-being. Seek people who make you feel welcome and cared for. This may be a family member or friend, or it could be a member of your church, a counselor, or anyone else who provides a sense of support and belonging.

Gain Mastery

Becoming skilled in areas that are important to you can help build your sense of self-determination. Whether you have a strong interest in a hobby, sport, academic subject, or another area, learning as much as you can about it and improving your skills can help you feel more competent.

The more you learn and practice, the more skilled and self-determined you will likely feel.

A Word From Verywell

Self-determination theory can be helpful in understanding what might motivate your behaviors. Being self-determined, feeling like you have the autonomy and freedom to make choices that shape your destiny, is important for each person's well-being.

When you pursue things that are intrinsically motivated and aligned with your goals, you will feel happier and more capable of making good choices.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."