Self-determination theory (SDT) is a macro theory of human motivation and personality that concerns people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs, developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan. It is concerned with the motivation behind choices people make without external influence and interference. SDT focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined.
Key studies that led to emergence of SDT and STD included research on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to initiating an activity for its own sake because it is interesting and satisfying in itself, as opposed to doing an activity to obtain an external goal (extrinsic motivation). Different types of motivations have been described based on the degree they have been internalized. Internalization refers to the active attempt to transform an extrinsic motive into personally endorsed values and thus assimilate behavioural regulations that were originally external.
Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan later expanded on the early work differentiating between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and proposed three main intrinsic needs involved in self-determination. According to Deci and Ryan, the three psychological needs motivate the self to initiate behaviour and specify nutriments that are essential for psychological health and well-being of an individual. These needs are said to be universal, innate and psychological and include the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
SDT is centred on the belief that human nature shows persistent positive features, that it repeatedly shows effort, agency and commitment in their lives that the theory calls “inherent growth tendencies”. People also have innate psychological needs that are the basis for self-motivation and personality integration.
SDT identifies three innate needs that, if satisfied, allow optimal function and growth:
These needs are seen as universal necessities that are innate, not learned (instinctive), and seen in humanity across time, gender and culture.
Deci and Ryan claim that there are three essential elements of the theory:
- Humans are inherently proactive with their potential and mastering their inner forces (such as drives and emotions)
- Humans have an inherent tendency toward growth development and integrated functioning
- Optimal development and actions are inherent in humans but they don’t happen automatically
To actualise their inherent potential they need nurturing from the social environment.
If this happens there are positive consequences (e.g. well being and growth) but if not, there are negative consequences. So SDT emphasises humans’ natural growth toward positive motivation; however, this is thwarted if their basic needs are not fulfilled.
SDT supports three basic psychological needs that must be satisfied to foster well-being and health. These needs can be universally applied. However, some may be more salient than others at certain times and are expressed differently based on time, culture, or experience.
Seek to control the outcome and experience mastery
Will to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others
Desire to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self; however, Deci and Vansteenkiste note this does not mean to be independent of others
SDT claims to give a different approach to motivation, considering what motivates a person at any given time as opposed to seeing motivation as a unitary concept. SDT makes distinctions between different types of motivation and the consequences of them.
Intrinsic motivation is the natural, inherent drive to seek out challenges and new possibilities that SDT associates with cognitive and social development.
Cognitive evaluation theory (CET) is a sub-theory of SDT that specifies factors explaining intrinsic motivation and variability with it and looks at how social and environmental factors help or hinder intrinsic motivations. CET focuses on the needs of competence and autonomy.
Claiming social context events like feedback on work or rewards lead to feelings of competence and so enhance intrinsic motivations. Deci found positive feedback enhanced intrinsic motivations and negative feedback diminished it.
Autonomy, however, must accompany competence for people to see their behaviours as self-determined by intrinsic motivation. For this to happen there must be immediate contextual support for both needs or inner resources based on prior development support for both needs.
CET and intrinsic motivation are also linked to relatedness through the hypothesis that intrinsic motivation flourishes if linked with a sense of security and relatedness.
Extrinsic motivation comes from external sources. Deci and Ryan developed organismic integration theory (OIT), as a sub-theory of SDT, to explain the different ways extrinsically motivated behaviour is regulated.
OIT details the different forms of extrinsic motivation and the contexts in which they come about. It is the context of such motivation that concerns the SDT theory as these contexts affect whether the motivations are internalised and so integrated into the sense of self.
OIT describes four different types of extrinsic motivations that often vary in terms of their relative autonomy:
Externally regulated behaviour: Is the least autonomous, it is performed because of external demand or possible reward. Such actions can be seen to have an externally perceived locus of causality.
Introjected regulation of behaviour: describes taking on regulations to behaviour but not fully accepting said regulations as your own. Deci and Ryan claim such behaviour normally represents regulation by contingent self-esteem, citing ego involvement as a classic form of introjections. This is the kind of behaviour where people feel motivated to demonstrate ability to maintain self-worth. While this is internally driven, introjected behaviour has an external perceived locus of causality or not coming from one’s self. Since the causality of the behaviour is perceived as external, the behaviour is considered non-self-determined.
Regulation through identification: Is a more autonomously driven form of extrinsic motivation. It involves consciously valuing a goal or regulation so that said action is accepted as personally important.
Integrated Regulation: Is the most autonomous kind of extrinsic motivation. Occurring when regulations are fully assimilated with self so they are included in a person’s self evaluations and beliefs on personal needs. Because of this, integrated motivations share qualities with intrinsic motivation but are still classified as extrinsic because the goals that are trying to be achieved are for reasons extrinsic to the self, rather than the inherent enjoyment or interest in the task.
Extrinsically motivated behaviours can be integrated into self. OIT proposes internalization is more likely to occur when there is a sense of relatedness.
SDT argues that needs are innate but can be developed in a social context. Some people develop stronger needs than others, creating individual differences. However, individual differences within the theory focus on concepts resulting from the degree to which needs have been satisfied or not satisfied.
Within SDT there are two general individual difference concepts, Causality Orientations and Life Goals.
Causality orientations are motivational orientations that refer to either the way people orient to an environment and regulate their behaviour because of this or the extent to which they are self-determined in general across many settings. SDT created three orientations: autonomous, controlled and impersonal.
- Autonomous Orientations: result from satisfaction of the basic needs
- Strong controlled orientations: Result from satisfaction of competence and relatedness needs but not of autonomy and is linked to regulation through internal and external contingencies, which lead to rigid functioning and diminished well-being.
- Impersonal Orientations: Results from failing to fulfil all three needs. This is also related to poor functioning and ill being.
According to the theory people have some amount of each of the orientations, which can be used to make predictions on a person’s psychological health and behavioural outcomes.
Life goals are long-term goals people use to guide their activities, and they fall into two categories:
- Intrinsic Aspirations: Contain life goals like affiliation, generativity and personal development.
- Extrinsic Aspirations: Have life goals like wealth, fame and attractiveness.
There have been several studies on this subject that chart intrinsic goals being associated with greater health, well-being and performance.
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