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Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) focuses on people’s inner motivational resources in an attempt to address psychological well-being and autonomous self-regulation. SDT assumes that people are curious, exploring, adventurous, and self-motivating by nature, and that success in-and-of-itself is the greatest reward, not necessarily what comes as a result externally. It asserts that “people have considerable capacity to choose behaviors based on inner desires and perceptions.” However, the theory also recognizes though that people can become mechanized, disaffected, and passive in their behavior. SDT accounts for this division by examining the types of motivation people experience and their effect on well-being. In fact, the nature of motivation is a key tenet of SDT. Before SDT, most theories considered the question of motivation as one of quantity—how much motivation, however catalyzed, does one possess. SDT, on the other hand, maintains that there are different types of motivation that direct the sense of well-being derived from one’s actions.

People are not acting in accordance with self-determination when their behavior is habitual or inflexible—taking the same course of action time after time, even when it is not the most appropriate course of action for the situation—or when their behavior is driven by emotional processes that preclude choice or the ability to assess the value of information. Even repeating a behavior over and over for the sole purpose of gaining a reward can undermine one’s ability to exercise self-determination. In such circumstances, the behavior can become automatic when the reward is present, or cease altogether when the reward is removed.

Interestingly, just as in the proverbial frog placed in lukewarm water will not jump out if the water temperature rises slowly, even to a boil and its certain death, people are often unaware of the loss of self-determination. Conversely, the restoration of self-determination requires awareness and deliberate intension.

SDT has been in place for close to four decades and has been well-tested in both laboratory and field research, however, it has been in that last decade that research and application of SDT has truly mushroomed. Today STD combines four mini-theories, each sharing organismic dialectical assumptions related to psychological needs. These four mini-theories are Basic Needs Theory, Cognitive Evaluation Theory, Organismic Integration Theory, and Causality Orientations Theory.

Basic Needs Theory

Basic Needs Theory (BNT) addresses the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness—the psychological needs for a sense of well-being. Autonomy is the need to feel that one’s behavior emanates from one’s own self-endorsed values, goals, needs, and interests, rather than from external regulators with which one cannot identify. It is having the perception that one is the origin of one’s own action, that he or she is the source of his or her own behavior. Competence is the need to feel a sense of efficacy in the environment, to master desirable challenges, and exercise one’s capacities and capabilities. It is feeling effective in one’s interactions with the social environment and experiencing opportunities to demonstrate one’s expertise and worth. The psychological need for competence drives people to seek after new challenges that leverage and enhance the core skills and abilities that define their sense of competence. Relatedness is the need to establish close personal bonds and relationships with others, and to thereby find emotional and caring support and security. It is a sense of connectedness with others, that one cares for others and in turn is cared for by others, and has a feeling of belonging to the larger community. It refers to the tendency that individuals have to seek personal and group connections.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory

Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) suggests that the need for competence and autonomy is rooted in intrinsic motivation, and that this intrinsic motivation can be in some way affected by contextual events. To put it another way, social-contextual events, such as praise, recognition, rewards, and other feedback mechanisms, that promote feelings of competence, can enhance intrinsic motivations for that action. There are two processes through which contextual factors can affect intrinsic motivation and its need for a sense of autonomy and competence. The first process is a change in the perceived locus of causality. When an event moves the perceived locus of causality away from an internal locus, intrinsic motivation will be undermined. Likewise, when an event is moved toward a more internal perceived locus, intrinsic motivation is enhanced. In essence, the greater the intrinsic motivation allowed, the greater the sense of autonomy. The second process is a change in perceived competence. When an event increases perceived competence, intrinsic motivation in turn increases.

Organismic Integration Theory

Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) postulates that people have a natural inclination to internalize their experiences. As this relates to SDT, this suggests that as people are externally motivated and rewarded to perform an otherwise uninteresting activity, they will in time develop a certain degree of intrinsic motivation around that task. Put another way, external regulations can be internalized and become internal regulations. To this end, OIT proposes a taxonomy of extrinsic regulations and a correlation to the degree to which they emanate from the self and influence on autonomy. It begins with amotivation, which lacks any intention to act, or if they do act is to passively and without any intent in the action. The next four points in the continuum offer varying degrees of extrinsic motivation. External regulation is the least autonomous of the motivations, and is rooted in the simple utilitarian proposition of gaining a reward or avoiding punishment. External regulation does not support one’s sense of autonomy. Introjected regulation is an example of an external regulation that is internalized to some degree and therefore providing some level of autonomy. Regulation through identification is the next on the continuum and involves a greater degree of autonomy. It involves a conscious valuation of the behavioral objective, an acceptance of the same as personally relevant and important. The last of the external motivations, integrated regulation offers the most autonomous of the external regulations. In this instance, the intent of the behavior has been brought into congruence with the goals, values, and needs of the individual. Finally, the continuum ends at intrinsic motivation, the innate motivation that emerge spontaneously from an individual’s psychological needs. This has important ramifications in developing compensation and recognition programs.


Figure 1. The Continuum of Motivations and Regulations

Causality Orientation Theory

Causality Orientations Theory (COT) describes the differences that exists between individuals and their orientation to either intrinsic or extrinsic motivators. The premise is that not everyone is equally motivated by either intrinsic or extrinsic regulators. Put in another way, not everyone requires the same sense of autonomy. To measure this, COT offers three orientations: autonomy orientation is focused on personal interests and self-endorsed values; controlled orientation is focused more toward directives and external expectations for behavior; impersonal orientation relies on indicators of ineffectance and behavior without intention.


Figure 2. The Four Mini-Theories that Comprise Self-Determination Theory


Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

deCharms, R. (1968). Personal causation: The internal affective determinants of behavior. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Deci, E. L. (1980). The psychology of self-determination. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Deci, E. L., Connell, J. P., & Ryan, R. M. (1989). Self-determination in a work organization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74(4), 580-590. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.74.4.580

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

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(4), 227-268.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M (2002). Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic dialectical perspective. In E. Deci, & R. Ryan. (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: The University of Rochester Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008a). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 14–23. doi: 10.1037/0708-5591.49.1.14

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008b). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology, 49(3), 182-185. doi: 10.1037/a0012801

Meyer, J. P., & Gangé, M. (2008). Employee engagement from a self-determination theory perspective. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 1(1), 60-62. doi: 10.1111/j.1754-9434.2007.00010.x

Reeve, J., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Self-determination theory: A dialectical framework for understanding sociocultural influences on student motivation. In D. McInerney, & S. Van Etten (Eds.), Big theories revisited: Volume 4 in: Research on sociocultural influences on motivation and learning. Information Age Publishing: Greenwich, CT.


  1. On an academic note, thanks for providing references at the end of the article, but it would be useful to reference the each area. I’d like to look more at COT, which article/s was this information summarized from?


    • Lon Schiffbauer

      Sorry I didn’t get back to you. You’re right; I don’t have in-text citations as per APA. The reference you’re looking for is:
      Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M (2002). Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic dialectical perspective. In E. Deci, & R. Ryan. (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: The University of Rochester Press.

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