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What Is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a framework for understanding human motivation that focuses on the importance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Self-determination refers to individuals’ ability to control their actions and make choices aligned with their goals, needs, and values.

Intrinsic motivation is another important component of self-determination theory. It is a type of motivation that involves doing things for their enjoyment rather than to gain some type of external reward.

Consider how you feel when you do something of your own volition vs. feeling bribed, compelled, or pressured into it. When you do something of your own free will, you probably feel a lot more motivated and excited to do it. But if you only do it because you feel like you have to, you’re unlikely to feel very motivated or enthusiastic.

Definition of Self-Determination Theory

According to one definition:

“Self-determination, as a psychological construct, refers to volitional actions taken by people based on their own will, and self-determined behaviour comes from intentional, conscious choice, and decision” (Hui & Tsang, 2012).

Self-determination theory was introduced by researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan during the 1980s as a framework for understanding human motivation

Self-determination theory suggests that feeling self-determined significantly affects how motivated people feel. If people feel they have control over what happens, they are more likely to feel motivated to take action. This can impact many areas of life, including helping people achieve their goals, care for their health, and feel more positive about their lives.

3 Needs in Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory suggests that people have three innate psychological needs:


The need to feel in control of one’s own actions and choices. Autonomy involves a sense of volition and the ability to act by one’s values and interests.


The need to feel capable and effective in one’s interactions with the environment. Competence involves mastering challenges, developing skills, and experiencing a sense of accomplishment.


Relatedness involves the need to feel connected to others, to love and be loved, and to experience a sense of belonging and social connection.

According to self-determination theory, satisfying these three psychological needs is essential to foster intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the internal drive to engage in activities for their inherent satisfaction. When these needs are met, people are likelier to be motivated, feel satisfied, and experience well-being.

Types of Motivation in Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory distinguishes between three main types of motivation: 

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is all about engaging in an activity for its own sake. When people feel intrinsically motivated, they pursue an action simply for the sake of doing so. They feel an inherent interest, enjoyment, and satisfaction in the activity.

Supporting intrinsic motivation is important because it helps foster better functioning and great long-term well-being.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation involves engaging in an activity to gain external rewards or avoid a punishment. This type of motivation can be helpful when a person might not be interested in the activity. It can help sustain interest and motivation when the person might otherwise give up.

Providing external rewards for activities that people already find intrinsic motivation for can lead to a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect. In this situation, external rewards cause people to become less motivated to engage in actions they once found intrinsically motivating.


Amotivation refers to a lack of motivation. When people feel incapable of controlling the outcome or feel like they do not influence what happens, they are more likely to become disinterested and unmotivated.

Amotivation can be caused by a number of things, including frustrations when it comes to feeling autonomy, competence, or relatedness. Not having the skills to complete a task, holding negative beliefs, and feelings of learned helplessness can also contribute to a lack of motivation.

Uses for Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination can come into play in many areas of life. Feeling self-determined can help improve learning, workplace performance, and even health-related behaviors.


Educators can utilize self-determination theory to create a supportive learning environment emphasizing autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When students feel they have choices in the learning process, they are more likely to feel motivated and engaged. 

Strategies that can help teachers do this include developing lessons that are within the zone of proximal development. This helps students feel competent and allows autonomy while still receiving guidance from a more knowledgeable person. It also introduces challenges that help students feel more intrinsically motivated to keep learning and improving their skills.


People who feel more self-determined in the workplace are often more productive and committed. Factors that can help employees feel more self-determined include allowing them to actively contribute, giving them responsibilities, allowing independent work, offering adequate support, and providing feedback that helps people feel encouraged and positive about the work they have done.

Health and Well-Being

Lifestyle factors such as poor diet, physical inactivity, and tobacco use contribute a great deal to poor health and an early risk of death. Health psychologists and other healthcare professionals often look for ways to create interventions that help people stick to healthy behaviors that support long-term health.

Research suggests that helping people feel more self-determined and intrinsically motivated can positively affect the motivation to stick with healthy behaviors.


Self-determination theory can also play an important role in therapy. Therapists can utilize principles of self-determination theory to foster greater autonomy, competence, and relatedness in clients. This might involve practices such as goal-setting, which can promote a sense of autonomy and competence. It can also involve building a positive therapeutic alliance, which creates a sense of trust between the therapist and anc client.

Limitations of Self-Determination Theory

While self-determination theory is widely accepted, that does not mean that it is without limitations and criticisms.

  • Cultural differences: Self-determination theory stems from a Western, individualistic perspective, so it may not fully explain motivation in more collectivist cultures.
  • Focus on autonomy: The theory heavily emphasizes the importance of autonomy, which again stems from its origins in an individualistic society. There are cultures and situations where relatedness and interdependence may play a greater role in explaining motivation.
  • Cognitive and emotional factors: Individual factors related to cognition and emotion can play an important role in shaping motivation, which are not fully accounted for by self-determination theory. 

How to Improve Self-Determination

Developing a sense of self-determination is a critical task during development. Researchers suggest that a number of different factors can help contribute to self-determination, including how parents and educators interact with children. Parenting styles and autonomy-supportive teaching styles can help foster greater feelings of self-determination in children.

There are things that you can do to help foster a greater sense of self-determination. Some steps you might take include the following:

Set Goals

Establish short-term and long-term goals for the things you would like to accomplish in your life. Creating such goals can give you a clear sense of purpose, which can improve motivation.

Build Your Self Awareness

Knowing more about yourself and what you want can help you make better decisions and feel a greater sense of self-efficacy and motivation. Strategies to help you learn more about yourself include practicing mindfulness and writing in a journal.

Develop Your Skills

Competence and mastery play a critical role in self-determination. If you feel more capable, you are more likely to feel more motivated to take action. So, focus on learning skills in the areas you are interested in. As you build mastery, you’ll likely begin to feel more confident and self-determined.

Find Supportive Relationships

Strong relationships can help you find the relatedness and connection you need to establish a sense of self-determination. Stay close to the people who are your greatest cheerleaders and focus on building supportive, mutual, interdependent relationships that foster long-term mental health.

Build a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is all about feeling like you can learn, grow, and make a difference in your environment. People with a fixed mindset tend to think that change isn’t possible. To foster self-determination, it is critical to embrace a growth mindset so you can feel motivated to take action.

Key Points to Remember

  • Self-determination theory suggests that people need to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness to feel intrinsically motivated and self-determined.
  • Self-determination theory also suggests that motivation can be extrinsic (hinging on external rewards) or intrinsic (arising from within the individual).
  • Self-determination can affect people in many aspects of life, including school, work, well-being, and mental health.
  • Satisfying the three psychological needs fosters greater intrinsic motivation and self-determination, which helps improve well-being, resilience, and self-efficacy.


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Hui, E. K., & Tsang, S. K. (2012). Self-determination as a psychological and positive youth development construct. TheScientificWorldJournal, 2012, 759358.

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Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2018). Self-determination theory in human resource development: New directions and practical considerations. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 20(2), 133–147.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. 2017. NY: The Guilford Press.