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Self Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a psychological framework developed by Deci and Ryan in the 1980s, which focuses on human motivation and the factors that influence the quality and direction of our behaviors. SDT posits that people have innate psychological needs that, when satisfied, can lead to enhanced well-being and optimal functioning. These needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Here are the key details of how SDT works:

Basic Psychological Needs


Autonomy is the need to feel in control of one’s actions and choices. It involves acting in harmony with one’s values and desires rather than being coerced or controlled by external forces. When people have a sense of autonomy, they are more intrinsically motivated and tend to engage more fully in activities.


Competence is the need to feel effective and capable in one’s activities. It involves developing and mastering new skills, and when this need is satisfied, it leads to a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. People are more likely to be motivated when they feel competent in their pursuits.


Relatedness is the need to feel connected to others and to be a part of social groups. It involves forming meaningful relationships and experiencing a sense of belonging. When people experience relatedness, they are more motivated and tend to engage in behaviors that promote social interaction and connection.

Types of Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is driven by internal factors like personal interest, curiosity, and the inherent satisfaction of an activity. SDT suggests that when people’s basic psychological needs are met, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is driven by external factors such as rewards, punishments, or social pressure. SDT distinguishes between different types of extrinsic motivation, ranging from autonomous (e.g., doing something because it aligns with personal values) to controlled (e.g., doing something due to external pressure).

Motivation Continuum

SDT presents a continuum of motivation, where intrinsic motivation represents the highest level of self-determined motivation, followed by different levels of extrinsic motivation, and finally, amotivation (lack of motivation). The goal of SDT is to move people along this continuum towards more autonomous and intrinsic motivation.

Supportive Environments

SDT emphasizes the role of the environment in facilitating or undermining people’s motivation. Environments that support autonomy, competence, and relatedness are more likely to foster intrinsic motivation and well-being. Supportive environments can include providing choice, opportunities for skill development, and nurturing social connections.


SDT has been applied to various domains, including education, healthcare, sports, and workplace settings, to understand and enhance motivation and well-being. For example, in education, teachers can create a more autonomy-supportive classroom environment to foster students’ intrinsic motivation for learning.

Critiques and Limitations

SDT has been subject to criticism, particularly related to its universality and the potential influence of cultural and individual differences on the satisfaction of psychological needs. Some argue that the theory may not apply equally to all cultural contexts.

In summary, Self-Determination Theory provides insights into human motivation by focusing on the role of innate psychological needs and the impact of the environment in fostering self-determined behavior. It has practical applications in various fields and has contributed to a better understanding of what drives individuals to engage in different activities.

Self Determination Theory Example


In a classroom, a teacher can apply SDT principles by allowing students to have some autonomy in choosing their projects or study topics, providing opportunities for them to develop competence in their learning, and fostering a sense of relatedness by encouraging collaboration and peer support. This can lead to increased intrinsic motivation for learning. For example, a science teacher might allow students to select their own research topics, providing autonomy, and offer constructive feedback to enhance competence. Group projects can promote relatedness by encouraging students to work together and build relationships.


In healthcare settings, practitioners can use SDT to motivate patients to adopt healthier behaviors. For instance, a physician can discuss treatment options with a patient, explaining the benefits and allowing the patient to make choices. This respects the patient’s autonomy. The patient can be educated about their condition and progress to enhance their competence in managing their health. Support groups and social networks can be leveraged to foster relatedness by connecting patients with others who share similar health challenges, providing emotional support and a sense of community.

Sports and Fitness

Coaches and trainers can apply SDT to sports and fitness by allowing athletes to have a say in their training plans and goals (autonomy). They can provide constructive feedback to help athletes develop their skills and abilities (competence). Additionally, team sports and group workouts can promote a sense of camaraderie and belonging (relatedness). Athletes who feel a sense of choice, skill development, and connection to their team are more likely to be motivated and perform well.


In the workplace, managers can create an autonomy-supportive environment by giving employees a degree of control over their work processes and encouraging them to take ownership of their tasks. Providing training and development opportunities allows employees to build competence. Team-building activities and a positive work culture can enhance relatedness by fostering a sense of belonging and collaboration among employees. This can lead to increased job satisfaction and motivation.

Hobbies and Personal Goals

In personal life, if someone wants to take up a new hobby like painting, they can follow SDT principles. They can choose their preferred art style and subjects (autonomy), practice regularly to improve their skills (competence), and join art classes or art communities to connect with like-minded individuals (relatedness). This will make the hobby more enjoyable and intrinsically motivating.

Self-Determined vs. Non-Self-Determined Behaviors

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) distinguishes between self-determined and non-self-determined behaviors based on the degree of autonomy and motivation underlying the behavior. These distinctions are essential in understanding the quality of motivation and its impact on a person’s well-being and persistence in a particular activity. Here’s a breakdown of self-determined and non-self-determined behaviors:

Self-Determined Behaviors

Intrinsic Motivation

  • Intrinsic motivation represents the most self-determined form of behavior.
  • It involves engaging in an activity because it is inherently interesting, enjoyable, or aligned with personal values and interests.
  • People pursue intrinsically motivated behaviors for the inherent satisfaction they derive from them, without the need for external rewards or pressures.

Autonomous Extrinsic Motivation

  • Extrinsic motivation is still considered self-determined, although it involves extrinsic factors.
  • Autonomous extrinsic motivation occurs when individuals engage in an activity because they see its value, find personal meaning in it, or perceive it as congruent with their own goals and values.
  • In this case, the behavior is driven by an internalized sense of choice and personal endorsement, even if there are external rewards or pressures present.

Non-Self-Determined Behaviors!

Controlled Extrinsic Motivation

  • This represents a less self-determined form of behavior.
  • Controlled extrinsic motivation occurs when individuals engage in an activity due to external pressures, rewards, or punishments.
  • The behavior is performed to comply with external demands or to obtain a specific outcome, rather than because of genuine interest or personal endorsement.


  • Amotivation represents the absence of motivation or a complete lack of intention to engage in an activity.
  • In amotivated behavior, individuals see no value, interest, or purpose in the activity and may feel helpless or apathetic.

The key distinction between self-determined and non-self-determined behaviors lies in the degree of personal autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Self-determined behaviors are driven by an individual’s choice, interest, and a sense of personal ownership, while non-self-determined behaviors are influenced by external factors, pressures, or rewards.

Research in SDT suggests that self-determined behaviors tend to lead to higher levels of well-being, persistence, and more sustainable behavioral change. In contrast, non-self-determined behaviors, especially those driven by external controls, may lead to decreased well-being and lower persistence in the long run. Therefore, SDT emphasizes the importance of fostering and supporting self-determined motivation to promote positive outcomes in various life domains.

Impact of Self-Determination

Enhanced Motivation

SDT provides a framework for understanding the different types of motivation, with a focus on intrinsic motivation and autonomous extrinsic motivation. When individuals’ basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are satisfied, they are more likely to experience higher levels of intrinsic motivation and engage in activities willingly and enthusiastically.

Improved Well-Being

SDT is strongly associated with increased well-being. When individuals are motivated by intrinsic factors and have a sense of autonomy in their lives, they tend to experience greater life satisfaction, happiness, and overall well-being. This is because they are more likely to pursue activities that align with their values and interests, leading to a sense of fulfillment.

Optimal Performance

In educational and work settings, SDT has been shown to enhance performance. When individuals are motivated by intrinsic factors or autonomously driven to excel in their pursuits, they tend to perform at their best. They are more likely to seek out challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, and continually improve their skills.

Enhanced Learning

In the context of education, SDT has implications for how students approach learning. When students feel a sense of autonomy in their studies, understand the relevance of the material, and have opportunities to collaborate with peers, they are more likely to engage in deep learning and retain knowledge more effectively.

Health and Behavior Change

SDT has been applied to health-related behaviors. When individuals have autonomous motivation to engage in healthy behaviors such as exercise and diet, they are more likely to sustain these behaviors over the long term. In healthcare, patients who feel in control of their decisions and are well-informed are more likely to adhere to treatment plans.

Positive Relationships

Positive Relationships – SDT emphasizes the importance of relatedness, or the need for social connection and relationships. When people experience relatedness, they tend to have healthier and more fulfilling interpersonal relationships. This can lead to improved mental and emotional well-being.

Reduced Burnout and Stress

Autonomy support in the workplace can reduce feelings of stress and burnout among employees. When individuals are allowed to have a say in their work, pursue tasks that interest them, and have a supportive work environment, they are less likely to experience the negative effects of chronic stress.

Personal Growth and Development

SDT provides a framework for understanding how individuals can grow and develop in a self-determined way. It emphasizes the importance of setting and pursuing personally meaningful goals, which can lead to a sense of personal growth and self-actualization.

Cultural and Societal Implications

SDT has contributed to a greater understanding of the importance of autonomy and social support in different cultural contexts. It has influenced policies and practices in education, healthcare, and the workplace to create more autonomy-supportive environments.

In summary, the impact of Self-Determination Theory is profound, affecting motivation, well-being, performance, and various aspects of personal and societal development. By recognizing and supporting individuals’ basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, SDT has the potential to enhance the quality of life and contribute to positive outcomes in various domains.

How to Improve Your Self-Determination

Improving your self-determination, or your ability to self-motivate and pursue your goals, can have a significant impact on your overall well-being and success. Here are some strategies to help you enhance your self-determination:

Identify Your Goals and Values

Start by identifying your short-term and long-term goals. What do you want to achieve in different areas of your life, such as career, relationships, health, and personal growth? Knowing your goals helps provide direction and purpose.

Connect with Your Values

Ensure that your goals align with your core values and beliefs. When your goals are meaningful and resonate with what matters to you, you’ll be more motivated to pursue them.

Set Clear and Specific Goals

Make your goals as specific and measurable as possible. This clarity helps you track progress and stay motivated. Use the SMART criteria (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) to structure your goals.

Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation

Foster intrinsic motivation by finding aspects of your goals that genuinely interest you or bring you joy. When you’re intrinsically motivated, you’re more likely to stay committed and persist in your efforts.

Practice Autonomy

Seek opportunities to make choices and decisions in your life. Autonomy is one of the basic psychological needs according to Self-Determination Theory. When you feel in control of your actions, you’re more self-determined.

Develop Competence

Enhance your competence by acquiring new skills and knowledge related to your goals. This can boost your confidence and motivation. Set aside time for learning and skill-building.

Create a Supportive Environment

Surround yourself with people who support your goals and provide positive reinforcement. Seek mentors, friends, or groups that align with your aspirations. A supportive environment can foster relatedness and motivation.

Practice Self-Reflection

Regularly reflect on your goals and progress. This can help you stay on track, adjust your strategies when needed, and maintain a clear sense of purpose.

Use Positive Self-Talk

Pay attention to your inner dialogue. Replace negative self-talk with positive and encouraging statements. Self-compassion and self-encouragement can boost self-determination.

Manage Distractions and Procrastination

Identify common distractions and procrastination triggers in your life. Implement strategies to manage them, such as setting boundaries, creating a focused work environment, and using time management techniques.

Seek Accountability

Share your goals with someone who can hold you accountable, such as a friend, family member, or coach. Reporting your progress to someone can help maintain your commitment.

Embrace Failure and Learn from It

Don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Failure is a natural part of the journey. Learn from your mistakes and use them as opportunities for growth and improvement.

Celebrate Achievements

Acknowledge and celebrate your successes and achievements, no matter how small. This positive reinforcement can provide motivation to continue.

Adapt and Adjust

Be flexible and open to adjustments in your goals and strategies. Sometimes, circumstances change, and it’s essential to adapt accordingly.

Remember that self-determination is an ongoing process, and it may require effort and practice. By consistently applying these strategies, you can improve your self-determination and enhance your ability to pursue your goals with enthusiasm and persistence.

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