Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Self-determination theory

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Self-determination theory:
How autonomy, competence and relatedness can make you more motivated


From birth, people are curious, playful, energetic and eager to learn which suggests very positive and persistent features of human nature. However, when one takes a quick look around a work place or educational environment there may be an abundance of individuals who are apathetic, irresponsible, reject growth and responsibility. Such non-optimal human functioning suggests the fact that human nature can either be active or passive, leading to the point that human propensity for motivation is more than just biological inheritance. In the real world, motivation, concerning all aspects of activation and intention (energy, direction and persistence) is highly valued for one reason: it produces (Ryan, Rochester, Deci & Edward, 2000).

A bored racoon

Motivation is often treated as a single entity, however people can be more motivated to perform if they value an activity or because there is external pressures. One may behave due to a sense of personal commitment, achievement of goals and one may behave due to external pressures from family or superiors in the workplace for example for fear of retribution. Comparisons between people whose motivation is self-regulated as oppose to those externally controlled are found to have more excitement, confidence and interest which has been attributed to greater performance, creativity and vitality (Seldon, Ryan, Rawsthorne & Ilardi, 1997). Additionally, a greater self-esteem (Deci & Ryan, 1995) and general well-being (Ryan, Deci & Grolnick, 1995) was found for those with self-regualted motivation even when the participants have the same level of perceived self-efficacy for the activity. Due to the differences between self-regulation and external motivation, the question that is asked is what kind of motivation is being exhibited at a given time; this is a major focus of the self-determination theory (SDT).

SDT is the investigation of people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs that are the basis for their self-motivation and personality integration, as well as for the conditions that foster those positive processes.
- Ryan et al. (2000), p.70

SDT aims to outline the factors that support the innate human potential for growth, integration and well-being[factual?]. The theory involves both intrinsically motivated behaviours, doing an activity for inherent satisfaction of the activity, and extrinsically motivated behaviours, performing an activity in order to achieve a separable outcome. Research has shown that the commitment reflected in instrinsic and extrinsic motivation are most likely to occur when individuals experience support of three basic psychological needs.

Three needs that appear to be essential for facilitating optimal functioning for growth and integration, constructive social development and well-being (Ryan et al., 2000) are identified as:

  1. Competence: Being effective in dealing with the environment one is in.
  2. Relatedness: The inherent quality of wanting interaction and caring experience.
  3. Autonomy: The ability of being a causal agent to ones own life.

Intrinsic motivaton[edit]

Developmental psychologists have acknowledged that from the time of birth children are active, intrigued and playful, even in the absence of rewards (Harter, 1978). This positive potential of human nature is intrinsic motivation, defined as the inherent tendency for individuals to seek out and explore challenges, exercise and develop ones abilities and learn (Ryan et al., 2000). This construct of motivation is vital to cognitive and social development as it describes a natural inclination towards assimilation, interest and exploration that represents a principle source of enjoyment and liveliness throughout life (Ryan, 1995). Although intrinsic motivational tendencies are inherent, Ryan et al. (2000) details that in order to maintain and develop upon them requires supportive conditions. Therefore, the question that remains is not what causes intrinsic motivation rather, what sustains it.

Competence, autonomy and relatedness[edit]

Deci and Ryan (1985) presented a sub-theory within SDT known as cognitive evaluation theory (CET) that aims at specifying social and environmental factors that facilitate intrinsic motivation. CET argues that social-contextual events such as feedback and rewards help bring out feelings of competence during an action can consequently enhance intrinsic motivation for that action. Deci (1975) can justify this[explain?] where intrinsic motivation was enhance by positive and diminished by negative performance feedback. Vallerant and Reid (1984) can further support that perceived competence mediated the effects[Rewrite to improve clarity]. CET continues to detail[explain?], and studies by Fisher (1978) and Ryan (1982) can confirm that intrinsic motivation will not be enhanced by competence unless partnered with a sense of autonomy. Therefore for intrinsic motivation to be evident, one must experience self-determined behaviour (autonomy) in addition to a feeling of competence.

Ryan et al. (2000) revealed that threats, deadlines, pressured directives or goals diminish intrinsic motivation because they steer towards an external perceived locus of causality (i.e., diminished autonomy). On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is enhanced by choice, acknowledgment of feelings and self direction (Deci & Ryan, 1985) as they allow a greater autonomy.

To give an example, studies have shown that teachers who are autonomy supportive vs. controlling encourage greater intrinsic motivation with students displaying higher inquisitiveness and initiative on tasks (Fink, Boggiano & Barret, 1990; Ryan & Grolnick, 1986). Students taught in the controlling group on the other hand, lost interest and were less effective in tasks requiring creative processing (Utman, 1997). Results are similar in other studies with autonomy-supportive parents having more intrinsically motivated children (Grolnicj, Deci & Ryan, 1997) in comparison to controlling parents. Therefore, supports for autonomy and competence are the catalyst to intrinsic motivation.

A third factor known as relatedness, also attributed to intrinsic motivation is observable at an early age through the behaviour of an infant that is securely attached to a parent. Frodi, Bridges and Grolnick (1985) confirm that security and maternal autonomy support in a study of mothers and infants predict greater infant exploratory behaviour and curiosity. In saying this, according to Ryan et al. (2000) under SDT, intrinsic motivation is more likely to thrive in interpersonal settings characterised by security and relatedness.

Ryan and Grolnick (1986) discovered that students who experienced uncaring teachers displayed lower intrinsic motivation and Anderson, Manoogian and Reznick (1976) had the same low motivation levels with children who worked on an engaging task with an ignoring and rude adult stranger. Obviously intrinsically motivated behaviours can occur when an individual is alone through competence and autonomy however, it must be recalled that intrinsic motivation will only occur for activities that hold intrinsic interest for the individual (appeal or challenge). For activities that do not hold interest for an individual, intrinsic motivation does not apply. In order to understand the motivation behind those activites extrinsic motivation must be called into review.

Extrinsic motivation[edit]

Although important, intrinsic motivation is not the only type of self-determined motivation. The question that remains is how individuals acquire the motivation to carry out non-intrinsically motivated behaviours and how this affects persistence, behaviour quality and an individual’s well-being (Ryan et al., 2000). When an individual seeks to foster the behaviour of another individual the motivation for the behaviour can vary. Additionally, a coach of a team who fosters the skilled behaviour of a sport can expect a range of motivational behaviour from unwillingness, passiveness or active personal commitment from players. Under SDT, these varying degrees of extrinsic motivational contingencies can be attributed to the internalisation and integration of the requested behaviour (Ryan et al., 2000). Vallerand (1997) defines internalisation as an individual "taking in" a value or regulation and integration as the further transformation of that regulation so that it will stem from their sense of self. Extrinsic motivation can vary greatly in its relative autonomy according to Ryan and Connell (1989) and Vallerand, (1997). To explain, read the following case:

Sam wants to be a fighter jet pilot when he is older and needs high grades in order to achieve his dream. He completes all his class work to a high standard although he has said to his family and friends many times that he does not enjoy it. Ping, on the other hand, is of Asian heritage and achieves high marks although is pressured by her parents. Who is extrinsically motivated?

The answer is that both Sam and Ping are extrinsically motivated however both behaviours vary in their relative autonomy. Although both cases involve "instruments" rather than enjoyment for the school work itself, Sam’s behaviour is attributed to a feeling of choice whereas Ping is adhering to her parents' control. Deci and Ryan (1986) introduced a subtheory within SDT called organisimic integration theory (OIT). This theory details the different forms of extrinsic motivation and the factors that promote vs. hinder internalisation and integration of behaviour regulation (Ryan et al., 2000). Figure 1 illustrates the motivational types that affect the degree to which the motivations are self-determined under OIT.

Ryan (1995) defines amotivation as the state of lacking the intention to act which sits at the far left of the self-determination continuum (Figure 1). It results when an individual does not value an activity, does not feel competent or is not expecting a desired outcome (Seligman,1975). On the far right of the figure is intrinsic motivation (highly autonomous) with extrinsically motivated behaviours, varying in the extent to which their regulation is autonomous (Ryan et al., 2000) filling the gap between amotivation and intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation: filling the gap between amotivation and intrinsically motivated behaviours (refer to Figure 1)

Extrinsically motivated behaviours
  • Least autonomous and externally regulated.
  • Performed to satisfy external demand or reward
Introjected Regulation
  • Taking in regulation but not fully accepting ownership.
  • Behaviours typically performed to avoid guilt, anxiety or to attain pride (ego involvement).
  • Introjection represents regulation by contingent self-esteem (Deci & Ryan, 1995).
  • People are motivated to demonstrated ability to maintain feelings of worth.
Regulation through identification
  • More autonomous, self-determined type of extrinsic motivation.
  • A conscious valuing of a behavioural goal or regulation, so that the action is accepted as important to the self (Ryan et al., 2000).
Integrated Regulation
  • Identified regulations fully assimilated and bought into congruence to the self’s values and needs.
  • Similar to intrinsic motivation, however still extrinsic as done to obtain separable outcomes (Ryan et al., 2000).

People experience greater autonomy as they internalise regulations and assimilate them to the self (Ryan et al., 2000). Ryan (1995) notes that this process may occur in stages but it is not suggested that it is a developmental continuum where a person has to progress through each regulation stage. People have the ability to internalise a new behavioural regulation at any point depending on prior experience and current situational factors (Ryan et al., 2000). Despite this, attached to increased cognitive capacities and ego development are the range of behaviours that can be assimilated to the self over time (Lovinger & Blasi, 1991; See table below).

Type of extrinsic motivation Experience/outcomes
External regulation

In a study conducted by Ryan and Connell (1989):

  • The more students are externally regulated the less they show interest, value and effort.
  • There is an increase in being unwilling to accept responsibility and blaming others for failures.
Introjected regulation
  • Positively attributed to expending more effort, however students coped poorly with results with increases in anxiety levels (Ryan and Connell, 1989).
Identified/integrated regulation
  • Ryan and Connell (1989) discovered that identified regulation was associated with more enjoyment of school, greater expenditure of effort and more positive coping styles.
  • The more autonomous extrinsic motivation can be associated with better performance (Miserandino, 1996), more engagement (Connell & Wellborn, 1991) and better teacher ratings (Hayamizu, 1997).
  • When looking at health care, greater internalisation has been associated by Williams, Rodin, Ryan, Grolnick and Deci, (1998) with greater adherence to medication (chronic illness), better maintenance of weight loss (obese patients), improved glucose control (diabetics) and greater involvement in treatment programs for drugs and alcohol (Williams, Freedman & Deci, 1998).
  • Other domains also recieve positive outcomes to more internalised motivations:
    • Religion (Ryan, Rigby & King, 1993),
    • Exercise (Chatzisarantis, Biddle & Meek, 1997),
    • Politics (Koestner, Losier, Vallerand & Carducci, 1996), and
    • Environmental activism (Green-Demers, Pelletier & Menard, 1997).

Competence, autonomy and relatedness[edit]

According to Ryan et al. (2000), because extrinsically motivated behaviours are typically not interesting, the prominent reason behind people performing them is because their behaviours are modelled by significant others. This suggests that the need for relatedness is innermost important to internalisation and OIT supports this by proposing that internalisation is more likely to occur with feelings of relatedness. Ryan, Stiller and Lynch (1994) have shown that children who felt securely attached to and cared by their parents and teachers had more fully internalised the regulation for positive school related behaviour (Ryan et al., 2000). In addition, Vallerand (1997) details that internalisation of extrinsically motivated activities is also a perceived competence function. Simply, individuals are more likely to adopt activities that other relevant social groups are partaking if they feel they will be successful in producing a desired or intended result.

An interesting fact: children are a great way for researchers to understand internalisation as they are often directed to perform behaviours before they are developmentally ready to learn or understand their rationale. From this we can predict only to partially internalise the regulation, with the child remaining externally regulated or introjected (Ryan et al., 2000).

The critical element for regulation to be integrated that facilitates internalisation is autonomy. Situations can produce external regulation with rewards or threats when the individual feels competent; situations can produce introjected regulation if a relevant social group endorses the activity and the person feels both competent and related. However, situations can only produce autonomous regulation only if they are autonomy supportive, allowing the individual to feel all three needs – competence, relatedness and autonomy (Ryan et al., 2000).

Support for autonomy allows individuals to transform values into their own. To integrate a regulation, people must absorb its meaning and fuse it with their own values and goals which is independent of external pressure (toward behaving a certain way) and facilitated by a sense of choice (Kuhl & Fuhrmann, 1998).

Studies by Deci, Eghrari, Patrick and Leone (1994) have supported this reasoning by demonstrating that providing a meaningful rationale for an uninteresting behaviour in addition to supports for autonomy and relatedness encourages its internalisation and integration. Controlling situations produced less internalisation overall with only introjected internalisation occurring in some contexts.

After review of SDT, the question remains as to why students show little interest, why employees lack creativity, and why medical patients abide so poorly to medical treatments. SDT attributes this to the failure of internalisation and suggests turning to the individuals immediate social contexts to examine the degree to which needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy are being hindered (Ryan et al., 2000). So the student who shows little interest may feel he is lacking skills, the employee may have an unreasonable boss, and the medical patient may be in an environment that is too controlling.

Satisfaction of the three psychological needs and the experience of well-being[edit]

A basic need, whether it be a physiological or psychological need, is an energizing state that, if satisfied, conduces toward health and well-being but, if not satisfied, contributes to pathology and ill-being.
- Ryan et al. (2000), p.75

SDT proposes that in order for an individual to experience an ongoing sense of well-being, the needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness must be satisfied. Firstly, the relation of personal goals to well-being will be discussed and it is predicted that the attainment of some life goals will provide relatively direct satisfaction of the basic needs (Ryan, Sheldon, Kasser & Deci, 1996).

Kasser and Ryan (1996) examined individual differences in the emphasis individuals placed on intrinsic aspirations compared to extrinsic aspirations. Intrinsic aspirations include things like affiliation, personal achievement and efficacy with extrinsic aspirations including material goals such as wealth and fame. The study discovered that individuals who placed stronger importance on intrinsic aspirations was positively associated with well-being indicators such as self-esteem and self actualisation (Ryan et al., 2000) while placing stronger importance on extrinsic aspirations was negatively related to these well-being indicators.

There are many factors that lead individuals to emphasise certain goals, which can include exposure to commercial media for example, and child attachment type (poor upbringing). Kasser, Ryan, Zax and Sameroff (1995) found that teenagers who had been exposed to controlling parents were more likely to favour extrinsic aspirations while teenagers with a more nurtured upbringing valued intrinsic goals. Developmental influences provide variations in the importance of goals, providing different levels of well-being and therefore different satisfaction of basic needs (Ryan et al., 2000). Additionally, the relations of people's reports of need satisfaction can vary in settings. Baard, Deci, and Ryam (1998) found that amongst nursing home residents, the supports for autonomy and relatedness predicted greater well-being. Therefore, need satisfaction can be attributed with improved well-being within specific domains.

Figures and tables[edit]

A diagram depicting the three elements of self-determination theory.

Figure 1. The Self-Determination Continuum Showing Types of Motivation With Their Regulatory Styles, Loci of Causality, and Corresponding Processes


  • Intrinsically motivated behaviours: doing an activity for inherent satisfaction of the activity.
  • Extrinsically motivated behaviours: performing an activity in order to achieve a separable outcome.
  • The commitment reflected in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is most likely to occur when individuals experience support of three needs: competence, relatedness and autonomy.

Intrinsic Motivation

  • Cognitive evaluation theory (CET) aims at specifying social and environmental factors that facilitate intrinsic motivation – feedback and rewards help bring out competence.
  • Threats and deadlines diminish intrinsic motivation (diminished autonomy) and choice and self-direction enhance it (increased autonomy).
  • Intrinsic motivation is more likely to thrive in settings characterised by relatedness.

Extrinsic Motivation

  • The need for relatedness is innermost important to internalisation of behaviours.
  • Internalisation of extrinsically motivated activities is a perceived competence function.
  • Support for autonomy allows individuals to transform external values into their own.



Intrinsic motivation is defined as the inherent tendency for individuals to seek out and explore challenges, exercise and develop ones abilities and learn.



Threats, deadlines, pressured directives or goals diminish intrinsic motivation because they steer towards an external perceived locus of causality (i.e., diminished autonomy).



The organismic integration theory (OIT) details the different forms of extrinsic motivation and the factors that hinder vs. promote internalisation and integration of behaviour regulation.



In order for an individual to experience an ongoing sense of well-being, the needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness must not be satisfied.



The cognitive evaluation theory (CET) aims at specifying social and environmental factors that facilitate extrinsic motivation.


See also[edit]

These links will guide you to other relevant book chapters from the Motivation & Emotion unit, 2011.

External links[edit]


Anderson, R., Manoogian, S. T., & Reznick, J. S. (1976). The undermining and enhancing of intrinsic motivation in preschool children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 915–922.

Baard, P. P., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1998). Intrinsic need satisfaction: A motivational basis of performance and well-being in work settings. Unpublished manuscript, Fordham University.

Chatzisarantis, N. L. D., Biddle, S. J. H., & Meek, G. A. (1997). A self-determination theory approach to the study of intentions and the intention–behaviour relationship in children's physical activity. British Journal of Health Psychology, 2, 343–360.

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B. C., & Leone, D. R. (1994). Facilitating internalization: The self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality, 62, 119–142.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1995). Human autonomy: The basis for true self-esteem. In M.Kernis (Ed.), Efficacy, agency, and self-esteem (pp. 31–49). New York: Plenum.

Flink, C., Boggiano, A. K., & Barrett, M. (1990). Controlling teaching strategies: Undermining children's self-determination and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 916–924.

Fisher, C. D. (1978). The effects of personal control, competence, and extrinsic reward systems on intrinsic motivation.

Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 21, 273–288. Frodi, A., Bridges, L., & Grolnick, W. S. (1985). Correlates of mastery-related behavior: A short-term longitudinal study of infants in their second year. Child Development, 56, 1291–1298.

Green-Demers, I., Pelletier, L. G., & Menard, S. (1997). The impact of behavioural difficulty on the saliency of the association between self-determined motivation and environmental behaviours. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 29, 157–166.

Grolnick, W. S., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1997). Internalization within the family. In J. E.Grusec & L.Kuczynski (Eds.), Parenting and children's internalization of values: A handbook of contemporary theory (pp. 135–161). New York: Wiley.

Harter, S. (1978). Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model. Human Development, 1, 661–669.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 80–87.

Kasser, T., Ryan, R. M., Zax, M., & Sameroff, A. J. (1995). The relations of maternal and social environments to late adolescents' materialistic and prosocial values. Developmental Psychology, 31, 907–914.

Koestner, R., Losier, G. F., Vallerand, R. J., & Carducci, D. (1996). Identified and introjected forms of political internalization: Extending self-determination theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1025–1036.

Kuhl, J., & Fuhrmann, A. (1998). Decomposing self-regulation and self-control. In J.Heckhausen & C.Dweck (Eds.), Motivation and self-regulation across the life-span (pp. 15–49). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Loevinger, J., & Blasi, A. (1991). Development of the self as subject. In J.Strauss & G.Goethals (Eds.), The self: Interdisciplinary approaches (pp. 150–167). New York: Springer-Verlag.

Ryan, R. M. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. Journal of Personality, 63, 397–427.

Ryan, R. M. (1982). Control and information in the intrapersonal sphere: An extension of cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 450–461.

Ryan, R. M., & Connell, J. P. (1989). Perceived locus of causality and internalization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 749–761.

Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L., & Grolnick, W. S. (1995). Autonomy, relatedness, and the self: Their relation to development and psychopathology. In D.Cicchetti & D. J.Cohen (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Theory and methods (pp. 618–655). New York: Wiley.

Ryan, R. M., & Grolnick, W. S. (1986). Origins and pawns in the classroom: Self-report and projective assessments of individual differences in children's perceptions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 550–558.

Ryan, R. M., Rigby, S., & King, K. (1993). Two types of religious internalization and their relations to religious orientations and mental health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 586–596.

Ryan, R. M, Rochester, U., Deci, E.L., & Edward L. (2000). Self-determination theiry and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Ryan, R. M., Sheldon, K. M., Kasser, T., & Deci, E. L. (1996). All goals are not created equal: An organismic perspective on the nature of goals and their regulation. In P. M.Gollwitzer & J. A.Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior (pp. 7–26). New York: Guilford Press.

Ryan, R. M., Stiller, J., & Lynch, J. H. (1994). Representations of relationships to teachers, parents, and friends as predictors of academic motivation and self-esteem. Journal of Early Adolescence, 14, 226–249.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness. San Francisco: Freeman.

Sheldon, K. M., Ryan, R. M., Rawsthorne, L., & Ilardi, B. (1997). Trait self and true self: Cross-role variation in the Big Five traits and its relations with authenticity and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1380–1393.

Utman, C. H. (1997). Performance effects of motivational state: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1, 170–182.

Vallerand, R. J. (1997). Toward a hierarchical model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In M. P.Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, (pp. 271–360). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Vallerand, R. J., & Reid, G. (1984). On the causal effects of perceived competence on intrinsic motivation: A test of cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of Sport Psychology, 6, 94–102.

Williams, G. C., Freedman, Z. R., & Deci, E. L. (1998). Supporting autonomy to motivate glucose control in patients with diabetes. Diabetes Care, 21, 1644–1651.