What Is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-determined man
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In psychology, self-determination is an important concept that refers to each person's ability to make choices and manage their own life. This ability plays an important role in psychological health and well-being. Self-determination allows people to feel that they have control over their choices and lives. It also has an impact on motivation—people feel more motivated to take action when they feel that what they do will have an effect on the outcome.

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 fosters success in many different domains of life.

What Is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-determination theory suggests that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate and universal psychological needs.

This theory suggests that people are able to become self-determined when their needs for competence, connection, and autonomy are fulfilled.

The concept of intrinsic motivation, or engaging in activities for the inherent rewards of the behavior itself, plays an important role in self-determination theory.

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 which suggested that people tend to be driven by a need to grow and gain fulfillment.

Two key assumptions of the theory:

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 (known as intrinsic motivation).

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

  • 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.
  • 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.

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, or refuse to admit that their own role. Most importantly, perhaps, is that this person 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.

How Self-Determination Theory Works

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 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 people are raised. Social support is key. Through our relationships and interactions with others, we can either foster or thwart well-being and personal growth.

While social support is important, there are other factors that can also help or hinder the three elements needed for growth.

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

Self-Determined vs Non-Self-Determined Behaviors

While extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are often portrayed as separate and distinct, behavior is complex and people are rarely driven to act by a single source of motivation. People may often draw on multiple sources of motivation in the pursuit of a goal. If you are training to compete in a marathon, for example, you might be extrinsically motivated by a desire to gain approval from others as well as intrinsically motivated by the satisfaction you gain from the activity itself.

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:

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

In most cases, behaviors tend to lie somewhere in the middle of the continuum. There is often a varying amount of external motivation, which can also fuel a 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 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.

Self-Determination in the Real World

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.

In the Workplace:

People who feel that they are able to have a positive effect at work tend to feel more engaged and motivated. How else can employers build self-determination in their workers?

  • Managers and leaders can foster this sense of self-determination by allowing team members to take an active role.
  • Offer employees responsibilities, provide meaningful feedback, and offer support and encouragement. 
  • Employers should be careful not to overuse extrinsic rewards. Too many rewards can undercut intrinsic motivation (a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect), yet too few can cause employees to feel unappreciated.

In Competition:

In competitive settings such as sports and athletics, fostering a sense of self-determination can inspire people to excel.

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

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

In Social Settings:

Self-determination can also play an important role in social relationships. A sense of belongingness is critical in the development of self-determination. Forging close, affectionate relationships with other people can improve self-determination.

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

In School Settings:

Self-determined students are more likely to feel motivated to achieve. There are things that educators can to do help students foster a sense of self-determination and intrinsic motivation:

  • Providing unexpected positive feedback when students perform well can help improve competence
  • Avoiding excessive external rewards for actions students already enjoy can help improve internal motivation

How to Improve Self-Determination

In order to strengthen your own self-determination, it is helpful to think about what a highly self-determined individual might look like.

People who are high in self-determination tend to:

  • Believe that they have control over their own lives. They 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. They do not rely on external rewards or punishments to motivate them to take action. They engage in behaviors because they are good at setting goals and working toward those aims.
  • Base their actions on their own goals and behaviors. In other words, they intentionally engage in actions that they know will bring them closer toward 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.

Improving self-awareness, decision-making skills, self-regulation, and goal-setting abilities can encourage the growth of stronger self-determination.

Steps you can take to improve your own sense of self-determination:

Find Social Support

Social connectivity is one of the main components of self-determination theory. Strong social relationships can foster motivation and well-being, while poor relationships can contribute to a poor sense of self and weak motivation.

Deci and Ryan have suggested that it is the social environment that can either help or hinder a self-determined perspective. Strong social support offers opportunities for growth, while poor support can disrupt inner experiences.

Gain Mastery

Becoming skilled in areas that are important to you is a helpful way to 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 the things that 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 that are aligned with your goals, you will feel happier and more capable of making good choices.

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