What is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a metatheory of human motivation and personality that addresses autonomous  behaviors  and  the  conditions  and processes that support such high-quality forms of volitional  engagement.  In  the  past  decade,  there has  been  a  burgeoning  growth  of  basic,  experimental,  and  applied  research  within  sport  and exercise  settings  designed  to  test  the  theoretical tenets advanced within SDT. Within this entry, the central components and motivational phenomena proposed within SDT are outlined.

Theoretical Framework

SDT  starts  with  the  assumption  that  humans  are growth-oriented  organisms  who  actively  seek optimal  challenges  to  actualize  and  new  learning experiences to master. This inherent tendency for growth is manifested within SDT through the concept of intrinsic motivation, a construct that is held to be inseparably intertwined with the notion of active and spontaneous activity. Intrinsic motivation is defined as partaking in activities for the enjoyment and interest that is inherent within the activity itself (i.e., doing the activity is the reward in  and  of  itself).  Yet,  SDT  also  stresses  that  individuals  do  not  automatically  experience  growth and  healthy  human  functioning.  Rather,  social environments  serve  to  shape  the  way  that  people act, think, and develop. In this regard, SDT specifies three basic and universal psychological needs that provide the essential nutriments for people to experience  growth,  development,  and  well-being. Specifically, these needs are (1) the need for autonomy (i.e., the need to experience activities as self-endorsed and choicefully enacted), (2) the need for competence  (i.e.,  the  need  to  interact  effectively within  the  environment),  and  (3)  the  need  for relatedness (i.e., the need to feel close, connected, and cared for with important others). Within SDT it is held that social environments that offer supports  for  these  basic  psychological  needs  provide the basis for people to engage more volitionally in activities and experience greater effective functioning and enhanced psychological wellness.

Based  on  the  seminal  work  of  Edward  L.  Deci and Richard M. Ryan, SDT has evolved through a comprehensive  and  systematic  program  of  inductive research spanning the past five decades. In its current  constellation,  the  overall  SDT  framework is  represented  by  five  interrelated  mini-theories, namely cognitive evaluation theory (CET), organismic integration theory (OIT), causality orientations theory  (COT),  basic  psychological  needs  theory (BPNT), and goal contents theory (GCT). Each of the separate SDT mini-theories was developed via lab  and  field  research  to  explain  and  empirically test a set of specific motivational phenomena.

Five Mini-Theories

The first of the five SDT mini-theories to be developed was labeled CET. This mini-theory provides a theoretical perspective and organizing structure to identify and synthesize empirical findings pertaining to how various social factors such as rewards, provision of choice, optimal challenge, feedback, and deadlines  affect  a  person’s  intrinsic  motivation. Within CET, it is posited that (a) events that satisfy the basic psychological needs for competence and autonomy  will  enhance  a  person’s  level  of  intrinsic  motivation  and  (b)  social  factors  that  are  not supportive  or  undermining  of  competence  and/ or autonomy (i.e., are deemed controlling) undermine or frustrate an individuals’ level of intrinsic motivation.

A  central  tenet  within  SDT  is  that  intentional action can be intrinsically driven (i.e., for the inherent interests of an activity) or extrinsically driven (i.e., for a separable consequence). As opposed to pitting extrinsic motivation against intrinsic motivation,  SDT  conceptualizes  extrinsic  motivation as  multidimensional.  Such  reasoning  provided the  basis  for  the  development  of  a  second  mini-theory,  termed  OIT.  Within  OIT,  a  continuum  of internalization is specified with four distinct types of  extrinsic  motivation  being  conjectured.  These motivations, which can be experienced simultaneously,  are  anchored  between  amotivation  (viz.,  a state of lacking intention to act that can arise due to a lack of competence, a belief that the activity is not important, or a lack of contingency between the  behavior  and  desired  outcomes)  and  intrinsic motivation.  These  motivational  styles  encompass regulations  characterized  by  external  contingencies  (i.e.,  reflected  by  a  high  level  of  control) through to forms that reflect self-endorsement and personal value (i.e., autonomous forms of extrinsic  motivation).  Specifically,  and  from  most  to least  autonomous,  the  extrinsic  forms  of  motivation  described  within  OIT  are  termed  integrated regulation  (i.e.,  when  a  person  partakes  in  an activity or behavior as it reflects their identity and is akin within their other values, goals, and needs), identified regulation (i.e., when an individual volitionally engages in an activity or behavior because they  identify  and  value  the  purpose  and  benefit accrued  from  taking  part),  introjected  regulation (i.e.,  when  behavior  is  underpinned  and  directed by  intrapersonal  sanctions  such  as  shame,  guilt, and  pride),  and  external  regulation  (i.e.,  when behaviors are controlled by external contingencies such as tangible rewards and punishments).

As  a  mini-theory,  OIT  provides  a  theoretical lens through which to conceptualize, understand, and define motivation from a quality perspective. That  is,  within  OIT  it  is  proposed  that  there  are manifold benefits of acting through more autonomous  forms  of  motivation  (e.g.,  enhanced  wellbeing  and  health,  better  performance,  improved learning, and better activity experiences). The continuum within OIT is not a developmental structure  but  rather  an  organizational  representation of  the  motivational  regulations.  This  means  that an individual can adopt a regulation at any stage of the continuum depending on the social context. To this end, OIT stresses that contextual supports for the basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness  are  conducive  to  supporting  internalization and integration.

In  terms  of  social  context,  within  SDT  it  is hypothesized  that  autonomy-supportive  environments  (viz.,  interpersonal  contexts  that  support choice, initiation, and understanding, while minimizing the need to perform and act in a prescribed manner)  facilitate  autonomous  engagement,  better  internalization  and  integration,  effective  functioning,  and  enhanced  psychological  well-being (PWB). The manifold benefits offered to individuals of interacting with autonomy-supportive others (often an authority figure such as a teacher, a manager, or a coach) is that such environments provide necessary supports for the satisfaction of people’s basic  psychological  needs.  People  also  experience increased  well-being  from  providing  autonomy support to others as well as receiving (i.e., mutual autonomy support). A number of other social contexts  have  also  been  examined  within  the  extant literature  in  terms  of  supporting  the  basic  needs for  autonomy,  competence,  and  relatedness  (e.g., structure,  involvement,  cooperation,  and  task-involving climates).

The  third  mini-theory  within  SDT  is  labeled COT  and  describes  variations  in  tendencies  of how  people  orient  toward  environments  and regulate their behavior. It is held within COT that everyone,  to  some  extent,  varies  in  three  orientations:  autonomy  orientation  (an  orientation toward  intrinsic  motivation  and  well-integrated extrinsic  motivation),  controlled  orientation  (an orientation  toward  being  motivated  by  reward contingencies,  constraints,  and  directives),  and impersonal orientation (i.e., a tendency for people to  act  without  intentionality  and  consider  themselves  as  incompetent).  Causality  orientations operate  at  a  global  level  (or  life  domain)  and reflect stable and consistent patterns of thinking. Within  COT,  holding  an  autonomous  orientation is hypothesized to positively predict effective functioning,  adaptive  behavior,  and  psychological health. Experimental manipulations have also shown  that  causality  orientations  can  be  primed to  yield  effects  parallel  to  the  relations  found  in research that has been conducted in field settings using self-report measures.

The  fourth  mini-theory  within  SDT  is  termed BPNT. BPNT is built on the assumption that three basic psychological needs are essential nutriments for ongoing wellness and optimal functioning. As referred  to  previously,  the  needs  specified  within BPNT are for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. As basic needs, these nutriments to wellness are  posited  to  be  universal  as  opposed  to  being learned or accrued via value systems (i.e., they have a functional impact irrespective of culture, gender, developmental stages). At the crux of BPNT is the assumption  that  a  person’s  development,  growth, integrity, and wellness are supported to the extent that  these  basic  needs  are  afforded  by  the  social context.  In  a  similar  vein,  and  as  essential  nutriments,  BPNT  stresses  that  in  the  event  of  these needs being frustrated ill-being, alienated functioning, and passivity will follow.

The  fifth  mini-theory  within  the  broader  SDT framework is GCT. This mini-theory is concerned with explaining why the different goals that individuals  pursue  differentially  predict  a  person’s motivation  and  well-being.  The  distinction  used to  categorize  and  compare  goals  varying  in  foci within  GCT  is  that  of  intrinsic  and  extrinsic. Intrinsic  goals  are  those  with  internal  foci  such as  personal  growth,  affiliation,  and  community contribution.  In  view  of  their  focus  on  developing  one’s  personal  interests,  values,  and  potentials,  intrinsic  goals  are  directly  supportive  of  a person’s  basic  psychological  need  satisfaction. Extrinsic  goals  are  those  with  an  outward  foci such  financial  success,  image,  and  popularity. Within  GCT,  extrinsic  goals  are  held  to  be  less supportive,  or  even  undermining,  of  basic  psychological  need  satisfaction  and  are  therefore considered to hinder optimal human development (i.e.,  they  are  associated  with  greater  ill-being and  reduced  wellness).  Research  has  also  started to examine goal contents within specific contexts such as exercise wherein goals for health management, skill development and social affiliation are classified  as  intrinsic  whereas  exercise  goals  for image  and  social  recognition  are  categorized  as extrinsic. Central to GCT, at both global and contextual levels, is that intrinsic goals are positively associated  with  enhanced  well-being  as  a  result of  such  goal  pursuits  being  consistent  with  the satisfaction of a person’s basic psychological need satisfaction.


The five mini-theories described in this entry collectively  constitute  the  broader  SDT  framework. Research within sport and exercise has been central to developments and applications pertinent to SDT, since early work on CET through to recent applications of GCT. Within the contexts of sport and  exercise,  research  has  focused  on  the  differential effects of differing types of motivation and the important implications that result from acting through these reasons for a range of outcome variables  such  as  well-being,  behavioral  persistence, effortful engagement, and performance. A similar line of inquiry has recently emerged with regards to  exercise-based  goal  contents.  Work  has  also been  conducted  to  better  understand  the  social contexts and goal inducements that facilitate versus  undermine  autonomous  engagement,  detailing how communications, feedback, rewards, and relational  supports  contribute  to  or  derail  volition  and  wellness  in  these  domains.  This  work has  become  increasingly  couched  within  BPNT as researchers attempt to better delineate the supports (and thwarts) of basic psychological needs. In better understanding what social supports and goal  inducements  are  supportive  of  basic  psychological  needs,  there  has  been  an  emergence of  more  applied  research  and  intervention  work using SDT.

Although  not  as  yet  formalized  within  the mini-theories  of  SDT,  a  number  of  processes and  phenomena  that  hold  relevance  to  sport  and exercise  are  addressed  from  the  SDT  perspective.  These  processes  include  the  study  of  vitality (i.e., a marker of mental and physical energy), the positive  effects  to  well-being  of  being  within  the natural  environment,  the  study  of  close  relationships, and the role of mindfulness (or awareness) in autonomous functioning.


  1. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.
  2. 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.
  3. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.
  4. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Self-determination theory and the role of basic psychological needs in personality and the organization of behavior. In O. P. John, R. W. Robbins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 654–678). New York: Guilford Press.
  5. Standage, M., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory and exercise motivation: Facilitating self-regulatory processes to support and maintain health and well-being. In G. C. Roberts & D. C. Treasure (Eds.), Advances in motivation in sport and exercise (3rd ed., pp. 233–270). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  6. Vansteenkiste, M., Niemiec, C. P., & Soenens, B. (2010). The development of the five mini-theories of self-determination theory: An historical overview, emerging trends, and future directions. In T. Urdan & S. Karabenick (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement, vol. 16: The decade ahead (pp. 105–166). Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing.

See also: