Self-Determination Theory

The self-determination theory (SDT), formulated by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, is a broad theory of human motivation for which the concept of basic or universal psychological needs for competence, relatedness, and self-determination and the differentiation of types of motivation (autonomous, controlled) are central and defining features. SDT posits that the type, rather than amount, of motivation is the more important predictor of outcomes, and that the type of motivation is determined by the degree of satisfaction of the basic needs. The theory predicts, and empirical evidence has confirmed, that satisfaction of the basic needs, and being motivated autonomously, are associated with important positive outcomes, such as enhanced well-being, improved learning, and greater persistence. Studies also show that when authority figures are autonomy supportive, taking the other person’s perspective and providing choice, the other person tends to become more autonomously motivated.

Basic Psychological Needs

SDT proposes that, in addition to requiring various physical forms of sustenance (e.g., food and water), humans have evolved to require certain psychological experiences for optimal functioning and psychological health. SDT has identified three psychological experiences that are universally required for optimal growth, integrity, and well-being: the needs for competence, relatedness, and self-determination. The postulate that these needs are universal means that they are essential for all people, regardless of sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or cultural values. Consider each need in turn.

Self-Determination TheoryThe first psychological experience that has been identified as a need is the feeling of competence, that is, the feeling that one is effective in dealing with one’s inner and outer worlds. This concept originated in the writings of Robert White, who spoke of being motivated by effectance. White suggested that when children play, they do it because it is fun, but children are also learning and becoming more effective or competent while they are playing. The feeling of competence or effectance applies to learning to manage oneself, for example, learning to regulate one’s emotions effectively, just as it applied to learning to function in the larger social milieu. The realization that one is improving in any important activity or meaningful aspect of one’s life is very gratifying and can be understood as representing satisfaction of the basic need for competence.

The second type of psychological experience that is a need within SDT is relatedness. The experience of relatedness is broadly defined as feeling connected to other human beings: of loving and being loved, of caring for and being cared for, of belonging to groups or collectives, and of having enduring relationships characterized by mutual trust. When someone shares a meaningful conversation, writes or receives a letter from a friend or family member, or hugs someone he or she cares for, the person is likely to experience satisfaction of the need for relatedness.

The third basic need within self-determination theory is the need for autonomy or self-determination. The concept of self-determination evolved from the writings of Richard deCharms, who distinguished between internal and external perceived loci of causality. DeCharms suggested that when people have an internal perceived locus of causality, they will feel as though they are the origin of their own actions, rather than being a pawn, which involves feeling pushed around by external forces. Being self-determined involves feeling a sense of volition or full willingness, having a feeling of choice about what one is doing, of endorsing one’s actions fully, and experiencing freedom in one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Having these experiences provides satisfaction of the basic need for autonomy or self-determination. Although other psychologists may use one or another of these terms to mean something other than what it means in self-determination theory, the use of these multiple descriptors is intended to give one a real sense of what the terms mean within SDT. In short, SDT maintains that human beings have a fundamental need to fully endorse their actions and to feel free with respect to constraints and pressures.

To summarize, SDT posits that each of these three types of experiences—the experiences of competence, relatedness, and autonomy—contribute importantly to people’s psychological and physical well-being. To the extent that any one of these needs is thwarted or denied to people, they will suffer some type of psychological or physical decrement as a result. Furthermore, these psychological needs are identified as the sources of energy for one type of motivation referred to as intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the type of motivation characterized by the experience of interest and enjoyment. The reward for intrinsic motivation is said to be in the doing of the activity rather than in what it leads to. In other words, intrinsically motivated behaviors are maintained by the spontaneous feelings that accompany the activity. Activities that you truly enjoy— perhaps playing lacrosse or golf, perhaps reading or drawing, perhaps climbing a mountain or taking a dip in the ocean—are intrinsically motivated. The concept of intrinsic motivation is used to describe the full range of behaviors that are willingly enacted in the absence of contingencies of reward or punishment. The prototypic example of intrinsic motivation is a child at play, running madly around the playground, building a snowman, digging in a sandbox, or turning a large cardboard box into a clubhouse. All these activities require the exertion of energy, yet the rewards are entirely intrinsic to the activities themselves. From an SDT perspective, the energy for such activities originates from the basic psychological needs (e.g., competence, relatedness, and autonomy).

The complement to intrinsic motivation, that is, the type of motivation that energizes and directs other human activities, is referred to as extrinsic motivation. This type of motivation is characterized by an instrumentality between the behavior and some separable consequence. The classic example of extrinsic motivation is doing an activity for a reward. In that case, the person is not doing the activity because the activity itself is interesting and enjoyable but rather because doing the activity allows the person to earn the reward. Doing things to avoid a punishment, to please a parent or spouse, to be accepted by a group, to look better than someone else are all examples of being extrinsically motivated.

Undermining Intrinsic Motivation

One of the phenomena for which SDT is well known is the undermining of intrinsic motivation by extrinsic rewards. In the early 1970s, some surprising research suggested that there might be a dark side to using task-contingent tangible rewards, such as money or prizes, to help motivate people to do interesting activities, such as learning or playing. The initial experiment by Deci found that when college students worked on interesting puzzles to earn money, they ended up finding the puzzles less interesting and enjoyable than did other students who had worked on the same puzzles without being offered money. The students who had been paid for solving the puzzles were less likely to return to the puzzle activity during a subsequent free-play period. In other words, when people were given a reward for doing an interesting activity, they lost interest in the activity and were less likely to engage the activity later.

From the perspective of SDT, the reason for this drop in intrinsic motivation was that the rewards tended to make individuals feel controlled. They became dependent on the rewards and lost their sense of doing the activity autonomously. Because satisfaction of the need for autonomy is essential for maintaining people’s interest and vitality for the activity—that is, their intrinsic motivation—they lost intrinsic motivation when their behavior was controlled.

Interestingly, another early experiment by Deci showed that when people received positive feedback for doing an interesting activity, their intrinsic motivation tended to increase rather than decrease. The SDT explanation was that the information contained in the positive feedback about people’s effectiveness at the activity provided satisfaction of the need for competence and enhanced their intrinsic motivation. Because positive feedback is sometimes referred to as verbal rewards, this experiment helped make the important point that rewards do not always undermine intrinsic motivation. Instead, they tend to undermine intrinsic motivation when people feel controlled by the rewards.

More than 100 published experiments have explored the effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation. In general, across all these studies, the results indicate that tangible rewards tend to decrease intrinsic motivation whereas verbal rewards tend to enhance it. Still other studies have examined the effects of other motivators such as surveillance, deadlines, evaluations, and pressure to win a competition. These studies suggest that each of these motivators tends to undermine intrinsic motivation because they diminish people’s experience of autonomy.

Autonomous Motivation and Controlled Motivation

The diminishment of intrinsic motivation by extrinsic motivators via the thwarting of people’s need for autonomy raised an interesting question: Do all extrinsic motivations tend to control people? Put differently, is it possible to be self-determined while doing an extrinsically motivated activity? SDT proposes that people can internalize external prompts or contingencies and accept them as their own. For example, a request from a parent that a child participate in the chores around the house to help the family would be an extrinsic motivator. The child might initially do the chores to please the parent. Gradually, however, the child could internalize the value of helping and the regulation of the behavior and, thus, would be more autonomous in doing the chores. However, SDT also suggests that values and regulations can be internalized to varying degrees. If the child were simply to take in the regulation and use it to force himself or herself to help, the child would still be relatively controlled. The child might be doing it to avoid feeling guilty or worthless, which, although internalized, does not represent autonomous self-regulation. To become autonomous, the child would need to identify with the importance of the activity and integrate its value and regulation into his or her own sense of who he or she is. Considerable research has shown that it is possible to internalize and integrate values and regulations, and that doing so is associated with higher levels of psychological well-being. Accordingly, over time, SDT changed the most important differentiation in the theory from intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to autonomous and controlled motivation. Autonomous motivation consists of intrinsic motivation plus fully internalized extrinsic motivation. Controlled motivation, in contrast, consists of regulation by external contingencies and by partially internalized values or contingencies—what in SDT are called introjects.

Being autonomously motivated involves feeling a sense of choice as one fully endorses one’s actions or decisions. People do intrinsically motivated behaviors because they find the activities interesting and enjoyable; they do well-internalized extrinsically motivated behaviors because they find them personally important. So, interest and importance are the two bases of autonomous motivation, and doing activities for either reason allows people to feel satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs. Controlled motivation, in contrast, involves acting because one feels pressured to do so, either through coercion or seduction. When controlled, people may behave because they feel lured into it by seductive rewards, feel forced into it by authority figures, or have introjected a demand and do it to bolster a fragile sense of self-esteem. When controlled, people might feel a sense of competence or relatedness, but they will not be satisfying their need for autonomy. From the prospective of SDT, satisfaction of all three of the basic psychological needs is necessary for autonomous motivation and for optimal well-being.

Positive Outcomes Associated With Autonomous Motivation

By virtue of the definition of basic needs within SDT, satisfaction of these needs promotes positive psychological health. More than three decades of research has confirmed that being autonomously motivated and satisfying the psychological needs are vital to both mental and physical well-being. Greater autonomous motivation relative to controlled motivation has been linked to more positive emotions and less stress. This pattern emerges in samples of both children and adults, in countries as varied as Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United States, among others.

Autonomous motivation also leads to greater maintained lifestyle change, better conceptual understanding and deep learning, greater job satisfaction and performance, and higher creativity. For example, research has demonstrated that when people are autonomously motivated to eat a healthier diet and exercise more, they tend to maintain those behaviors more effectively over the long run. When students in school are more autonomously motivated, they tend to get better grades and are less likely to drop out. Employees at large companies are more likely to receive positive work evaluations when they are autonomously motivated. And the paintings and collages created by individuals whose motivation is autonomous are likely to be rated as more creative by expert judges. The merits of autonomous motivation are numerous and varied.

Promoting Autonomous Motivation

Many studies have shown that it is possible to enhance autonomous motivation. Research has indicated that when authority figures, such as parents, managers, teachers, coaches, or physicians are more autonomy supportive, their children, subordinates, students, athletes, or patients become more autonomously motivated. Being autonomy supportive means that authority figures consider and understand the other person’s perspective and relate to that person with consideration of this perspective. For example, autonomy-supportive teachers relate to their students in terms of the students’ skill levels and encourage them to move on from there. Furthermore, the autonomy-supportive authority figure offers choice, provides meaningful explanations for why requested behaviors are important, and encourages exploration and experimentation. In these ways, authority figures can facilitate autonomous motivation, basic psychological need satisfaction, and greater health and well-being.


  1. Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.
  2. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
  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. White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297-333.