What Is Self Determination Theory? (Source Of Motivation)

Self Determination Theory

Self-determination theory (SDT) provides a framework for developing motivation. It is primarily concerned with understanding what motivates people to act positively. It also identifies how social and cultural factors are beneficial as motivational setbacks. There are a couple of things here. SDT is a theory concerned with motivation, like what gets people going.

Welcome to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a fascinating exploration into the psychological framework that illuminates how and why we are driven to act. At the heart of this theory lies a simple yet profound concept: the power of choice and autonomy in human behavior. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the intricacies of SDT, uncovering the essential elements that propel us toward personal growth, self-fulfillment, and intrinsic motivation.

From understanding the core needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to examining how they shape our actions and attitudes, this post is an odyssey through the landscapes of human motivation. Whether you’re a psychology student, a professional seeking to enhance workplace motivation, or simply curious about the forces that drive your daily decisions, join us on this enlightening journey through the principles of Self-Determination Theory. Let’s unravel the mysteries of what moves us, what fulfills us, and what drives us to achieve our fullest potential.

What is Self Determination Theory?

Self-determination theory is a psychological and highly modern theory about motivation. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci developed it. They focus on two things. Firstly, on the dominant role of intrinsic motivation. Secondly, on the conditions under which extrinsic motivation. Self-determination theory begins by making an important distinction.

Self determination
Self determination

Most people who think about psychology think about it as a unitary concept. Motivation is more than biological inheritance. In real-world motivation concerning all aspects of activation, people can be more motivated to perform with a value activity or external pressures.

There are 2 types of motivation:

  • Autonomous motivation.
  • Controlled motivation.

1. Autonomous motivation

It describes what you’re doing when you’re feeling. If you’re doing it with a real sense of interest, enjoyment, and value, then it’s autonomous motivation. Performance, wellness, and engagement are greater when people are more autonomously motivated than controlled. Autonomous motivation is two types.

  • Extrinsic motivation.
  • Intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation – Richard Ryan developed the other type of autonomous motivation. He got interested in the idea of extrinsic motivation and whether extrinsic motivation could be autonomous or not. Extrinsic motivation refers to being motivated by external.

It means whether for a reward such as money or a trophy or to stay out of trouble with authorities such as police, teachers, and parents. People will be autonomously motivated when they work by understanding the value of the activity that may be rewarded or requested. The outcomes will be very positive.

One example could be a trial that works hard at school not to learn but to get a grade or receive a sticker. In a football context, a player is motivated by the status of a specific team.

Intrinsic motivation – Someone does something because of exciting and enjoyable. Intrinsic motivation is voluntary engagement and activities for inherent enjoyment. Further, the intrinsically motivated individual is internal in their quest. It becomes a personal quest to better themselves at a given activity.

2. Controlled motivation

It refers to doing something to get some reward or avoid some punishment. It means doing something because you feel pressured and obliged to do it. When most people think about motivation, they think more about controlled than autonomous motivation.

Human beings have a set of basic psychological needs. The concept of psychological needs being universal is an important one. In 2000, Dessie analyzed shed self-determination theory with the world. It attempts to develop the intrinsically motivated individual by meeting three basic psychological needs.

The theory states that there are three innate psychological needs that everybody shares. Everyone wants to feel like they’re mastering something.

  • Autonomy.
  • Competence.
  • Relatedness.

Autonomy: Autonomy is the ability to make own choices. It’s not as strong as independence because as an autonomous individual from other people. It is a human need that people must satisfy for optimal wellness and performance. There will be negative psychological consequences if they don’t satisfy the need.

Autonomy refers to the choice of control and freedom over behavior. For example, you might run a 1v1 activity with no football session. So, a simple way to allow autonomy is by getting players to choose their opponents. A more complex example of autonomy may be setting up a system. It allows players to select the position they play.

Competence: The second need is competence. It is a feeling of success or the feeling that there is a possibility for success. People create different challenges for different individuals within the same context. For example, you could be working on the first touch, but how an individual succeeds differs. One may get a point for scanning, while others may earn points for taking their touch opposite the defender.

Relatedness: Finally, the third lead is relatedness. Relationships are a powerful tool for motivating others. They shouldn’t be underestimated. Relatedness is a sense of belonging or connection with the team and coaches. An example of creating relatedness is as simple as shaking hands with each other at the end of a training session.

We need to undergird all three principles to produce positive motivation in people. Studies may have shown that intrinsic factors seem to motivate better.

What is self determination theory of motivation?

SDT identifies three fundamental psychological needs:

What is self determination theory of motivation
Self determination theory of motivation

Autonomy: The need to feel in control of one’s behaviors and goals. This involves acting in harmony with one’s authentic self and feeling a sense of volition and freedom in one’s actions.

Competence: The need to feel capable and effective in one’s activities. It involves the understanding and mastery of tasks and the feeling of confidence and efficacy in achieving desired outcomes.

Relatedness: The need to have a sense of belonging and connectedness with others. This entails forming meaningful relationships and feeling cared for and valued by others.

According to SDT, fulfilling these needs is essential for intrinsic motivation, which comes from within, as opposed to extrinsic motivation, which is driven by external rewards or pressures. Intrinsic motivation is associated with higher-quality learning, better psychological health, and greater well-being.

SDT also distinguishes between different types of motivation based on the degree to which they are self-determined:

Intrinsic Motivation: Engaging in an activity for its inherent satisfaction and pleasure.
Extrinsic Motivation: Engaging in an activity for external rewards or to avoid negative outcomes.
Amotivation: Lack of motivation or indifference towards an activity.
The theory emphasizes that the type and source of motivation are critical in determining the nature of an individual’s behavior and their psychological well-being. It has been applied in various domains, including education, work, healthcare, sports, and parenting, providing insights into how environments and social contexts can support or hinder motivation and personal development.

What is self determination theory in psychology?

Key Components of Self-Determination Theory:

Basic Psychological Needs: SDT identifies three innate and universal psychological needs:

Autonomy: The need to experience behavior as voluntarily and self-endorsed. It’s about feeling a sense of choice and psychological freedom in one’s actions.
Competence: The need to effectively interact with and master one’s environment. It involves feeling skilled and capable in activities one is undertaking.
Relatedness: The need to feel connected to others, to care for and be cared for, and to have a sense of belonging and attachment to others.

Types of Motivation: SDT distinguishes between different types of motivation based on the degree of self-determination or autonomy:

Intrinsic Motivation: Engaging in activities for the inherent satisfaction and enjoyment they bring.
Extrinsic Motivation: Motivation from external sources, such as rewards, social approval, or avoiding punishment. SDT further breaks down extrinsic motivation into different types, depending on how internalized or integrated the motivation is to one’s sense of self.
Amotivation: Lack of motivation or intention to engage in an activity.

The Continuum of Self-Determination: Motivation exists on a continuum from amotivation (no motivation) to intrinsic motivation, with several stages of extrinsic motivation in between, varying in their degree of internalization and integration into the self.

Goal Contents Theory: A sub-theory of SDT that focuses on what types of goals or aspirations (intrinsic vs. extrinsic) individuals strive for and how these goals affect their psychological well-being.

Causality Orientations Theory: Another sub-theory that explores individual differences in people’s tendencies or orientations toward being autonomously motivated versus controlled or amotivated.

Applications of SDT:

SDT has been applied in various fields, including education, work, sports, health care, and psychotherapy. It helps understand how different types of motivation affect learning, performance, personal satisfaction, and well-being. It also provides insights into how social and environmental factors can support or hinder people’s innate tendency toward psychological growth and intrinsic motivation.

What is self determination theory in education?

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) in education is a framework that applies the principles of SDT to teaching and learning environments. Developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, the theory focuses on the motivation behind people’s choices without external influence and interference. In educational settings, SDT examines how students can be motivated to learn and achieve based on their inherent needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Self determination theory in education
Self determination theory in education

Key Aspects of SDT in Education:

Autonomy: This refers to the feeling that one’s actions are self-chosen and self-endorsed. In education, it means supporting students’ sense of control over their learning processes. This can be achieved by providing choices in learning activities, encouraging student input, and avoiding controlling language and excessive pressure.

Competence: Students need to feel effective in their learning activities. This involves providing challenging yet achievable tasks, giving constructive feedback, and celebrating successes to reinforce a sense of accomplishment and skill development.

Relatedness: Students are motivated when they feel connected to others in the learning environment. This involves fostering a sense of belonging and community in the classroom, promoting collaborative learning, and establishing positive teacher-student relationships.

Applications of SDT in Education:

Curriculum Design: Creating curricula that allow flexibility and choice, catering to different learning styles and interests.
Assessment Methods: Using assessments that promote learning and improvement rather than solely grading performance and providing constructive feedback.
Classroom Environment: Establishing a classroom climate that is supportive, inclusive, and responsive to student needs.
Teacher Autonomy Support: Teachers adopt an autonomy-supportive teaching style, where they guide, encourage exploration, and allow students to take initiative.

Benefits of Applying SDT in Education:

Increased Intrinsic Motivation: When students’ psychological needs are met, they are more likely to develop intrinsic motivation for learning.
Improved Learning Outcomes: Students are more engaged and perform better academically when they feel autonomous, competent, and connected.
Enhanced Well-being: Fulfilling these basic psychological needs contributes to overall well-being and positive attitudes towards learning.
Development of Lifelong Learners: Focusing on intrinsic motivation makes students more likely to develop into lifelong learners with a genuine interest in acquiring new knowledge and skills.

In summary, the Self-Determination Theory in education highlights the importance of creating learning environments that nurture students’ intrinsic motivation by supporting their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This approach seeks to foster a more engaging and effective educational experience.

Self-determination theory examples

Here are some examples across different contexts that illustrate the application of SDT:


Autonomy: A teacher gives students a choice in selecting a topic for a project, allowing them to explore areas of personal interest.
Competence: Providing constructive feedback on assignments, highlighting strengths and improvement areas, to help students feel skilled and capable.
Relatedness: Creating a classroom community where students feel connected and supported by their teachers and peers.


Autonomy: A manager trusts employees to complete projects in their way, offering guidance but not micromanaging.
Competence: An organization provides training and development opportunities, enabling employees to enhance their skills and effectively contribute to the team.
Relatedness: Company retreats or team-building activities that foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie among colleagues.


Autonomy: A doctor presents treatment options to a patient, explaining the pros and cons, and allows the patient to make an informed decision.
Competence: Patient education programs that equip patients with knowledge and skills to manage their health effectively.
Relatedness: Support groups for individuals with similar health challenges, providing a space for sharing experiences and fostering connections.


Autonomy: A coach encourages athletes to set personal goals and have a say in their training plans.
Competence: Regular feedback on performance, highlighting areas of improvement and celebrating achievements.
Relatedness: Creating a team environment where all members feel valued, supported, and integral to the team’s success.


Autonomy: Allowing children to make choices appropriate to their age, such as choosing their clothes or extracurricular activities.
Competence: Praising children for their efforts and helping them learn new skills in a supportive way.
Relatedness: Spending quality time together and showing interest in a child’s activities and thoughts.

Personal Goals:

Autonomy: Choosing a personal goal because it’s meaningful to you, not because of external pressure (like learning a new language because of personal interest).
Competence: Setting incremental milestones in pursuit of the goal to track progress and adjust the approach as needed.
Relatedness: Sharing your goals with friends or family to create a support system.

These examples illustrate how SDT can be applied in various aspects of life, highlighting the importance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in fostering intrinsic motivation and well-being.

Last Words

This journey through SDT has not only shed light on the fundamental psychological needs that drive human behavior but also emphasized the incredible impact of autonomy and self-direction in our lives. Through the lens of SDT, we gain a deeper understanding of how to nurture our intrinsic motivations, foster meaningful connections, and develop a sense of competence in our endeavors.

As we move forward, let this knowledge empower us to create personal and professional environments that cultivate self-determination and unlock the boundless potential of the human spirit. The journey towards self-fulfillment is an ongoing process of autonomy and interdependence, where pursuing our goals and realizing our true selves go hand in hand. Here’s to a future where each of us can flourish, driven by the profound and inspiring principles of Self-Determination Theory.

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Ryan, R. M.; Deci. “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.” American Psychologist.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M., Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford handbook of human motivation. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Ryan, R. M. & Deci. Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Publishing.

Julia Rose

My name is Julia Rose. I'm a registered clinical therapist, researcher, and coach. I'm the author of this blog. There are also two authors: Dr. Monica Ciagne, a registered psychologist and motivational coach, and Douglas Jones, a university lecturer & science researcher.I would love to hear your opinion, question, suggestions, please let me know. We will try to help you.

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