Self-Determination Theory: How It Explains Motivation

Key Takeaways

  • Self-determination is a theory of human motivation and personality that suggests that people can become self-determined when their needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy are fulfilled.
  • The presence versus absence of environmental conditions that allow satisfaction of these basic needs (in people’s immediate situations and in their developmental histories) is a key predictor of whether or not people will display vitality and mental health.
  • People tend to become happier when pursuing things that are intrinsically motivated and aligned with their own goals – it not only makes them feel more responsible about the outcomes, it also helps them to really focus their time on what they want to be doing.
  • Self-determination theory itself can be helpful in understanding the things that might motivate a given individual’s behavior. Feeling like one has both the autonomy and the capabilities required to make choices on their own is something that most, if not every, individual would want to have.

What is Self-Determination?

The term self-determination was first introduced by Deci and Ryan in their 1985 book Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior .

The term self-determination refers to a person’s own ability to manage themselves, to make confident choices, and to think on their own (Deci, 1971).

Self-determination is a macro theory of human motivation and personality. It is a theory that deals with two huge factors: people’s inherent growth tendencies and the innate psychological needs of these same individuals.

Given how self-determination can help with achieving independence, this concept plays an essential role not only in the overall well-being of the individual, but also their overall psychological health. Because self-determination puts the individual in the driving seat, it makes the person both responsible and potentially culpable for whatever happens.

Given this, self-determination also has a large impact on motivation. If the individual themselves believe they can manage themselves properly, they would more than likely find more motivation in whatever task they wish to carry out.

Theoretical Assumptions

The need for growth drives behavior.

The first assumption of self-determination theory is that a need for growth as a human being drives behavior. People are always actively seeking to grow and improve (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

Gaining mastery over challenges (both new and old) is essential for developing a sense of self or, at the very least, a cohesive one.

Autonomous motivation is important.

Self-determination theory focuses on the interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motive and needs of human beings. People can generally be motivated by outside factors such as money, acclaim, and fame, and this type of motivation is known as extrinsic . However,

Self-determination theory focuses primarily on internal sources of motivation (known as intrinsic motivation), such as learning to gain independence and wanting to prove yourself.

According to Lepper et al. (1973), if the behavior is purely self-determined, there is a very high chance that it will be both intrinsically driven and that the behavior is done not for the reward or the prize, but rather for self-satisfaction, interest, and enjoyment for the behavior itself.

Non-self-determined behaviors are only performed only because they have to get done – not out of enjoyment or because it fulfills the individual, rather because the individual has little to no choice on whether they want to partake in said behavior. This leads to a lack of control given that this behavior is not done willingly.

Basic Needs

Self-determination theory posits that people are driven by three innate and universal psychological needs, and that personal well-being is a direct function of the satisfaction of these basic psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 1991;Ryan, 1995),

Competence (need to be effective in dealing with the environment)

Competence is a term utilized to describe someone who has sufficient qualities to perform a given task or to describe the state of having sufficient intellect, judgment, skill, and/or strength.

When an individual feels competent, they feel able to interact effectively within their environment, and they have the skills needed for success to ensure that their goals are achieved. A competent person feels a sense of mastery over their environment.

If tasks are too challenging or a person receives negative feedback, feelings of competence can decrease. Alternatively, feelings of competence are enhanced when the demands of a task are optimally matched to a person’s skills, or positive feedback is received.

Relatedness (need to have close, affectionate relationships)

Relatedness is the ability to feel a sense of both attachment to other people and a sense of belonging amongst other people.

Relatedness involves feelings of closeness and belonging to a social group.

Without connections, self-determination is harder to achieve because the individual would lack access to both help and support.

Feelings of relatedness are enhanced when individuals are respected and cared for by others, and are part of an inclusive environment. Alternatively, feelings of relatedness are undermined by competition with others, cliques, and criticism from others.

Autonomy (need to feel self-governing and independent)

Autonomy is the ability to feel in control of one’s behavior and destiny, and involves self-initiation and self-regulation of one’s own behavior.

Autonomy involves being able to make your own decisions and is associated with feelings of independence.

Feelings of autonomy are enhanced when individuals are given choice and are able to govern their own behavior, and when other people acknowledge their feelings.

Alternatively, the individual lacks autonomy if they feel controlled or threatened by others, or have to operate according to deadlines.

Tangible rewards can also reduce feelings of autonomy. If one were to give someone an extrinsic reward for already intrinsically motivated behavior, then the likelihood that autonomy is undermined (given that the extrinsic reward is likely to draw attention away from autonomy) is fairly large.

It gets even worse if the behavior is repeated: as the behavior becomes increasingly controlled by external rewards rather than by autonomy. Thus, intrinsic motivation is diminished, and people start to feel both a different source for their motivation and less belief in their own personal qualities.


Research on self-determination theory has shown the importance of the three basic needs in real-world settings, such as the workplace, education, and sports.

In the Classroom

  • Researchers have found that students show a greater intrinsic motivation towards learning when teachers encourage a culture of autonomy in the classroom (Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). Students experience autonomy when they feel supported to explore, take initiative and develop and implement solutions for their problems.
  • Teachers should provide prompt feedback and stretch and challenge students to promote a sense of competence. If done correctly, feedback not only works because it provides an insight into how that student is doing, but because when students perform well and they are given positive feedback, it makes them feel good about the work they have achieved.
  • Students experience relatedness when they perceive others listening and responding to them. When these three needs are met,
  • It is fine to reward a student for their success, but avoiding excessive external rewards for actions students already enjoy is essential if one wants to improve their internal desire for motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999) Students who are more involved in setting educational goals are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation, and are more likely to reach their goals.

In the Workplace

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

  • Organizations should encourage autonomy in the workplace as this can enhances employees’ well-being, productivity, and personal growth, and contributes to organizational effectiveness (Strauss & Parker, 2014).
  • One way that managers and leaders can help their employees with developing self-determination is by putting them in leadership roles. For example, let’s say that the company needs to prepare a presentation for a huge client.
  • A manager who wants to build his employer’s sense of self-determination will take steps to ensure that the each of the team members working on the presentation take an active role. One could be in charge of designing the graphs, while the other is in charge of the marketing strategy.
  • Constructive feedback works wonders for building self-determined behaviors like competence.Feedback helps individuals understand what they are doing wrong and how they can improve doing said task. It helps people feel as if their work has actual value, which is key in trying to build motivation.
  • Employers should be careful not to offer one too many extrinsic rewards as this can diminish a sense of autonomy. If extrinsic rewards are in the picture, it is likely to become the case that – at some point – the work will stop being about loving what one does and become about simply obtaining the reward.

In Competition

Fostering a sense of self-determination is one of the many things that can inspire certain individuals to excel – this is especially true in competitive settings -such as sports and athletics – where the stakes are sometimes so high.

  • It surely is a given that athletes are driven to perform better in their designated sport if they themselves believe that they are capable of overcoming the hurdles that may arise along the way (Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2008).

In a Social Setting

If an individual attempts to forge close, and affectionate relationships with other people – the likelihood that self-determination behaviors improve (or are seen more often) is high. What are some specific ways that people can build self-determination in social settings?

  • One specific way to build self-determination in these types of settings is by actively seeking positive relationships with people that promote a positive environment.
  • When seeking social relationships, an individual who wants to work on their self-determination should look for individuals who will support them in the pursuit of their goals.

How to Improve Self-Determination

People who are high in self-determination tend to believe in their own innate ability and that they have control over their own lives.

People who practice self-determined behaviors have an internal locus of control, and this makes them feel that their behaviors will have an influence on outcomes.

More importantly, it makes them understand that in order for other people to start believing in this individual’s abilities, the same individual must first believe in themselves.

People who believe in themselves- when faced with a difficult scenario feel that they can overcome anything they set their minds on through the use of diligence, good choices, and hard work.

Without an individual believing in themselves, chances are that individual is likely less to give 100% of his effort when trying to achieve any task (after all, why would said individual give so much time and effort to a cause they think they are bound to already fail)?

People who are high in self-determination tend to have high self-motivation.

People who demonstrate self-determined behaviors tend not to rely on external rewards as a means for them to do a task. Often, times completing the task properly is its own reward.

To improve motivation, it is essential to remove external rewards and punishments as a reason for completing a task. Self-determined individuals set goals and work to reach them because they feel enough motivation to know that their effort will produce a finished product.

People who are high in self-determination tend to take responsibility for their behaviors.

The biggest difference between someone who is self-determined and someone who isn’t is that highly self-determined people take credit for their success, but they also hold their heads high up in the face of failure. They have no problem with taking responsibility, because they know they can do better.

Conversely, individuals who lack self-determination will attempt to put the blame on someone or something else in an attempt to take of the pressure from themselves.

Taking responsibility is important for learning how to become self-determined as it helps the individual accept that they are human (meaning, that they are capable of failure) and also that they are capable of owning up to their mistakes (which is a sign of confidence).

It puts the individual in a situation where they appreciate that things happen to them even more because – at the end of the day – the person who is responsible for putting the individual in that situation is the individual themselves.


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

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation . Psychological Bulletin, 125 (6), 627.

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1991). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personality”. In R. Dienstbier (Ed.),
Nebraska symposium on motivation: Vol. 38. Perspectives on motivation (pp. 237–288). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 85-107). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hagger, M., & Chatzisarantis, N. (2008). Self-determination theory and the psychology of exercise. International review of sport and exercise psychology, 1 (1), 79-103.

Lepper, M. K., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “over justification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28 (1), 129–137.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and research in Education, 7 (2), 133-144.

Pritchard, R.; Campbell, K.; Campbell, D. (1977). Effects of extrinsic financial rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62 (1), 9.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 68–78.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Publishing.

Strauss, K., & Parker, S. K. (2014). Effective and sustained proactivity in the workplace: A self‐determination theory perspective. In M. Gagné (Ed.),
The Oxford handbook of work engagement, motivation, and self‐determination theory
(pp. 50–72). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Gabriel Lopez-Garrido

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Political Science and Psychology

Gabriel Lopez-Garrido is currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree with a minor in Psychology.