Self Determination Theory

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Nearly twenty-years ago, I stumbled on a book. Sitting prominently on my bookshelf, now tattered cover with ragged pages, this paperback book contains hundreds of markings, paragraphs underlined, and margins filled with scribbles. I couldn’t put down Edward Deci and Richard Flaste’s book: Why We Do What We Do. The title resonated with me; I wanted to know why people did what they did. After fifteen-years in law enforcement, I struggled to understand human cruelty and misfortune. Deci and Flaste’s book couldn’t answer my deeper existential questions, however, they presented a helpful piece to the puzzle—self determination theory.

What is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-determination theorists investigate “people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs” (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p. 68). With an abundance of supporting empirical evidence, self-determination theory has identified conditions that foster positive personality development and behavior self-regulation.

Self-determination theory rests on two primary assumptions:

  • The need for growth motivates behavior
  • Autonomous motivation is necessary for wellness

Self-determination theory posits that humans naturally progress when universal psychological needs are met. According to self determination theory there are three universal core needs are:

We are intrinsically motivated to satisfy these needs. Therefore, behaviors that fulfill these needs are rewarding. An important point of self-determination theory is that “self-determination” is a product of environments.

​Object of Self Determination Theory

​The object of self-determination theory is to help people achieve optimal functioning through providing supportive environments. When the environment provides the necessary nutrients that nurture confidence, relatedness, and autonomy the person is intrinsically motivated to develop without the need of external rewards or punishments.

If parents, teachers, and societies integrate self determination theory’s objective, there would be less need for punitive punishment or manipulative rewards. People would develop, motivated by intrinsic drives to grow, at least according to the theory.

Core Psychological Needs

Edward Deci, Richard Ryan and Veronika Huta refer to the core needs as “first order values”. They are sought after for the sake of themselves. They explain that the over all wellness of a person’s life can be distinguished “by the degree to which people’s energies and interests are focused on intrinsic values versus second- or third-order values” (2008, page 149). 


Albert Bandura wrote in a 1977 paper that, “the strength of a person’s convictions in their own effectiveness is likely to affect whether they will even try to cope with given situations” (p. 193). Above all, motivation heavily relies on us believing that we matter and that what we do matters. Bandura’s self-efficacy, Martin Seligman’s learned helplessness, Deci and Ryan’s self determination all agree that confidence plays a significant role in motivation.

Core self evaluations theory suggests that competence (self efficacy) is a first order core belief from which other self evaluations build upon.

​See Learned Helplessness for more on this topic

We need a sense that our actions impact the outcome. Without this confidence, we pull back and allow the world to act upon us. Oppressive governments, systematic prejudice, and chaotic households can erode confidence in self efficacy. The ability to foresee the impact of present behaviors on future events requires a skill we refer to as episodic foresight.


Carl Rogers wrote in his book On Becoming Human that “all children face the challenge of responding to society’s beckoning without being overwhelmed or suffocated by it. They must find a way to become related to the social world while also achieving a sense of integrity within themselves” (1995, page 99).

We long to belong. We desire to be loved, accepted and validated. “The need for relatedness refers to feeling connected to and cared about by others” (Ryan, Huta, and Deci, 2008, page 153).

The need for relatedness is more comprehensively explained in the hypothesis of human needs for belonging. Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary theorize that satisfying this need involves two criteria:

  • “frequent, affectively pleasant interactions with a few other people.” 
  • the “interactions must take place in the context of temporarily stable and enduring framework of affective concern for each other’s welfare” (1995, page 1997).


We need to feel in control of our behaviors. A sense that we control our own destinies through our chosen behaviors. Basically, we want to be self-governing, authentic beings.

Deci and Flaste explain in their book that “autonomy fuels growth and health because it allows people to experience themselves as themselves, as initiators of their actions. Perceived confidence, or mastery, without perceived autonomy is not enough because being a competent puppet does not nourish humanness” (1996).

To be autonomous means to act according to oneself, actions emanating from our core. “To experience a sense of choice, you need to know (or be able to find out) the possibilities, the constraints, the hidden features. Without such information, being given a choice will feel more like a burden than a support for autonomy. It may well engender anxiety, and without adequate information, people are more likely to make mistakes” (1996, p. 36).

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in Self Determination Theory

A clear distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is foundational to understanding self determination theory.

Intrinsic Motivation:

Deci and Flaste suggest that intrinsic motivation is at the heart of “healthy behavior and lasting change” (1996, page 9). Intrinsic motivation is pursuing first-order values. We love for the sake of loving.

Deci and Ryan’s self determination theory describes intrinsic motivation as a principle source of enjoyment and vitality throughout our life. They say that in many ways it “is almost spiritual” having to do with the feeling itself. They continue, “it is vitality, dedication, transcendence. It is one of those experiences that can be called ‘more than ordinary moments’” (2000, page 45).

Intrinsically motivated behavior is enjoying the path—the means—to the end. If our fitness and diet is motivated by a desire to be healthy, the work is enjoyable. Health is a first order goal. On the other hand, if we are dieting and exercising to lose weight, so we are more likely to be praised by others, relieving our sense of shame and insecurity, the work is a second or third order goal. Our first order goal is belonging. Because of this, exercise in this latter scenario is a chore.

Extrinsic Motivation:

Extrinsic motivations is effort to achieve a reward outside of ourselves. We are more motivated at work when the work is engaging, relying on our creativity, and skill than a job where we do our obligatory eight hours and flee. The effort and energy drag on our wellness.

We need a paycheck; I get it. Many jobs are a second-order endeavor. We work for a paycheck to pay for shelter. 

Extrinsic rewards are often power plays by unscrupulous others. Accordingly, they use their money or position to convince and manipulate others. Often these power plays erode our sense of autonomy.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Not Mutually Exclusive

Our behaviors are not one or the other. Markedly, we are complex beings with competing motivations. A complex web of desires motivate behaviors. Beneath desires are both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Somewhere in the complexity, motivation arises and we act.

We may want a job that requires our creativity, builds confidence and supports our autonomy; however, if it doesn’t pay a fair salary we may choose something else out of necessity. Life is complex, full of difficult give and take choices.

What Interferes with Natural Inclinations for Growth?

Confidence stems from a series of occurrences. We begin with an intention, feel autonomous in our behavior to achieve that intention, and then act. When our action achieves the intention, we gain confidence. When our action fails, and after examining the behaviors and consequences can determine the point of failure, we feel confident to try again.

Many events disrupt the process. Therefore, we must watch carefully. Deci and Flaste explain, “social contexts that are extremely inconsistent or chaotic, that make it impossible for people to figure out what is expected of them and how to behave competently so as to achieve intrinsic outcomes,” they warn that this “will lead to a general thwarting of the human spirit” (1996, page 83).

“It is truly amazing, as pointed out by our findings, that if people are ongoingly treated as if they were passive mechanisms or barbarians needing to be controlled, they will begin to act more and more that way” (page 84).

Our confidence must come from somewhere, not just a faint idea that we can do something difficult. Chaotic environments keep intruding and disrupting. Oppressive environments punish for exhibiting autonomy. When action repeatedly fails and we have no known path to change, self determination withers and dies.

How Do We Nurture Self Determination?

In the home, classroom and large scale communities, we nurture self determination by removing the barriers that prevent successful realization of autonomously chosen goals. 

Sadly, conditions have systematically destroyed the necessary conditions for development of self determination for large swatches of society. Opportunities thwarted, punishments imposed, and autonomy ridiculed. Yet, then, those suffering from the outrageous deeds are criticized, “if they had self determination, they would succeed.”  Accordingly, we must do better at removing the barriers.

We need a different point of focus. Particularly, we strengthen our self determination through small successes. “Enduring changes in motivation takes place through small changes happening at the situational level…” (Vallerand, Pelletier, & Koestnerp, 2008, page 260).

We must easily translate our behaviors must into success. If we fail at overhauling our diet, just make a small change (eliminate soda for a week). Consequently, these small successes develop confidence. Like bricks, we slowly stack successful achievements of intentions, they form become a layer, then a wall, then a house.

Creating Motivational Environments

We must become architects of our environments, creating supportive forces that nudge success. In their informative book Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote, “It seems reasonable to say that people make good choices in contexts in which they have experience, good information, and prompt feedback.” They continue “they do less well in contexts in which they are inexperienced and poorly informed, and in which feedback is slow or infrequent—” (2009, location 241).

As young children, we have no choice over the environment. As adults, we have much more latitude. Our environments must support our goals. Accordingly, we can’t pull self-determination out of thin air. We must find supportive others, remove temptations, and add feedback mechanisms.

If our goals are first-order values, intrinsically rewarding, and within our capabilities to achieve, then we begin the baby steps towards developing sufficient self determination to accomplish greater challenges.

As I place my beloved book on self determination back on the shelve, I contemplate my life. I see some failures and some successes. I value my determination in some areas and regret quitting in other areas. Markedly, our lives are mixed bags of treats and stinkers. Therefore, we just work to move forward, autonomously taking another step, attempting another project, and enjoying the wonderful relationships we make along the way.

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Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.

Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

​Deci, E. L., Flaste, R. (1996) Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Penguin Books; Reprint edition

​Rogers, C. (1995). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Mariner Books; 2nd ed. edition

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., Deci, E.L. (2008). Living Well: Self Determination Theory Perspective on Eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies 9:139-170

Thaler, R. H., Sunstein, C. (2009). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Penguin Books; Revised & Expanded edition.

Vallerand, R., Pelletier, L., & Koestner, R. (2008). Reflections on Self-Determination Theory. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(3), 257-262.

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