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.
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.
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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.
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.
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