Self-Determination: Definition, Theory, & Examples
What is self-determination? Read on to learn about what self-determination is, the theory behind it, examples, and tips for increasing self-determination.
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Why do you do the things you do? Why did you brush your teeth this morning, or go to work, or click on this article? Is it possible to change the way you behave or to feel differently while you do?
As we will learn below, underlying all of our behavior is motivation. Even for an activity that you don’t feel like doing, such as washing the dishes when you’re tired at night, some motivation pushes you to do it (like the unpleasant thought of waking up to dirty dishes tomorrow). But not all motivation is created equal: we will also see how motivation is more complex than simply whether you have more or less of it. Self-determination theory is a widely recognized framework for understanding motivation and the impact that different types of motivation can have on different aspects of well-being. Read on to learn the fundamental principles of self-determination theory and how to live a more self-determined life.
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What is Self-Determination? A Definition
The psychologists who developed self-determination theory defined self-determination as follows: “Self‐determination means acting with a sense of choice, volition, and commitment, and it is based in intrinsic motivation and integrated extrinsic motivation” (Deci & Ryan, 2010). Read on to learn more about the theory behind self-determination, including the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and what it means for extrinsic motivation to be “integrated.”
About Self-Determination Theory
How is Self-Determination Related to Motivation?
Motivation can be defined as the energy for action (Deci, 2012). The main question that inspired research into motivation is why people act or don’t act in certain ways. Earlier psychologists in the behaviorist school of thought theorized that human behavior is driven by learned associations: we engage in behaviors that we have associated with reward and avoid behaviors that we have associated with the lack of reward (Watson, 1957). This is the theory underlying the way we train dogs and other animals - we praise and reward behaviors that we want to see more of.
The developers of self-determination theory felt that this behaviorist perspective did not account for the complex thoughts that humans have and that they believed could uniquely influence motivation for certain behaviors. Additionally, they didn’t believe that motivation should be considered a “unitary” concept whereby you either have more or less of it - instead, they highlighted that there could be different types of motivation, specifically intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Finally, they believed that the type of motivation underlying behavior had significant consequences for performance and well-being.
Deci and Ryan's Self Determination Theory
Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan first presented Self Determination Theory (referred to as SDT for short) in their 1985 book, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. They suggest that there are four different types of behavior regulation or motivation, two of which are autonomous and two of which are controlled. In this theory, autonomous regulation is the basis for self-determination (Deci & Ryan, 2010). Below, we will use the example of practicing an instrument to illustrate different types of motivation.
Autonomous motivation or regulation refers to acting out of a sense of willingness, volition, and choice (Deci, 2017). There are two types of autonomous regulation:
1. Intrinsic motivation: doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable.
Example: Practicing an instrument because you take pleasure in it.
2. Internalized extrinsic motivation: doing something that was originally motivated by external factors but the value of which you have now internalized. In the definition above, this type of motivation is also referred to as “integrated” motivation.
Example: Practicing an instrument because you have now fully internalized its inherent value, even though you initially practiced because your parents told you to.
Controlled motivation or regulation refers to acting out of a sense of pressure, demand, or obligation (Deci, 2017). There are also two types of controlled regulation:
1. Extrinsic motivation: doing something because it leads to a separate outcome such as praise.
Example: Practicing an instrument because your parents reward you for doing so.
2. Introjected regulation: doing something because you have partially internalized an extrinsic motivation and are pressuring yourself into it. This type of motivation is often also associated with guilt.
Example: Practicing an instrument, no longer for a reward from your parents, but because you would feel guilty about not practicing.
As we can see with these examples, both autonomous and controlled motivation may result in the same behaviors. However, the quality of the behavior and your experience doing it can vary based on which type of motivation is behind it. Read on to learn about how self-determined behaviors influence emotion, performance, and overall well-being.
Video: Edward Deci - Self-Determination Theory
In this video, you can watch Edward Deci summarize Self Determination Theory in his own words.
Here are some examples of self-determined behaviors, some of which are intrinsically motivated and some of which may have internalized extrinsic motivations:
Principles of Self-Determination
Self-determination theory states that humans have three psychological needs for optimal well-being and performance: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. When someone feels related to others, competent, and like they are acting with a sense of volition, they will be autonomously motivated or self-determined (Deci, 2017; Deci & Ryan, 2012).
While much of the focus in the field and this article is on autonomy, the research suggests that to foster self-determination in oneself or others, it is important to create a supportive environment that satisfies all three of the above needs (Deci & Ryan, 2012).
How Self-Determination May Affect Well-Being
So why do these different types of motivation or regulation matter? If you end up with the same behaviors, then does it make a difference what is motivating them? Well, your own experience might tell you that the type of motivation you have can influence how you feel while you engage in a behavior. In the above examples of practicing an instrument, how might your experience differ depending on the type of motivation underlying your practice?
Research surrounding Self Determination Theory has found that autonomous regulation is linked with greater overall well-being. “Those behaviors that are more self‐determined and less controlled are associated with a stronger sense of personal commitment, greater persistence, more positive feelings, higher quality performance, and better mental health” (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Studies have found that autonomous motivation is also associated with greater creativity and improved problem-solving (Deci, 2012).
With this in mind, it might be helpful to learn how to increase the amount of autonomous regulation in your life. To do this, you can work on creating a supportive environment for yourself based on the above principles of relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Read on to learn some tips for living a more self-determined life.
Video: Promoting Motivation, Health, and Excellence by The Co-Founder of Self-Determination Theory
In the below video, you can watch Ed Deci speak about some of the research surrounding self-determination theory, motivation, and well-being.
Self Determination Skills
Many researchers explore self-determination theory because of an interest in motivating others to do things, for example, to improve performance at work or to promote certain health behaviors. However, you may be reading this article because you are interested in increasing your own sense of self-determination. So, based on the above principles, what are some ways of cultivating self-determination?
Being self-determined does not mean being completely self-reliant. Based on the theory presented above, we need to feel connected to others to flourish. So how might knowledge of this psychological need help us become more self-determined? Consider a behavior that you would like to do more of, such as exercise. Are there people in your life that value this behavior? If so, can you connect with them about it? If not, how might you be able to find a new community that values this behavior, for example at a group fitness class, gym, or even an online community? Feeling like you are part of a community can help increase the sense of value that you have for a certain behavior.
It may seem difficult to change your sense of competence or effectiveness while doing certain behaviors. Perhaps you don’t feel particularly “effective” when doing something like your 9 to 5 job. However, research has found that authentic positive feedback (not simply motivated by a desire to improve performance) can improve self-determination (Deci & Ryan, 2012). If you aren’t receiving this type of feedback from an external source, how might you be able to give it to yourself? For example, periodically throughout your day, you might pause to consider what you have achieved or done well in the last hour. We tend to dwell on the negative and discount or disregard the positive, so making a conscious effort to notice the positive can go a long way towards increasing your sense of competence.
How about in the case of activities that you are a complete beginner at? For example, let’s say you want to learn a new language. As a function of being a novice, you will not immediately be an expert. However, competence also entails feeling capable of achieving one’s goals - how can you get into the mindset that you can achieve this goal? Perhaps this involves making language practice a daily habit, working with a teacher who can hold you accountable, or setting a concrete goal (such as learning a certain number of new words by a specific date). This subtle mindset change can help increase your sense of competence and, in turn, your self-determination.
Are there behaviors that you regularly do but don’t enjoy? While autonomous motivation can stem from the sheer enjoyment of an activity, it doesn’t have to. As we saw from the theory above, it is possible to internalize extrinsic motivation. One way of doing this is through the alignment of the activity with your deepest values. It can be powerful to figure out the values underlying certain behaviors by repeatedly asking yourself why you want to do that behavior. Asking yourself these questions might look a little something like this:
Q: Why do I exercise?
A: Because I want to get in shape.
Q: Why do I want to get in shape?
A: So that I feel strong and healthy.
Q: Why do I want to feel strong and healthy?
A: So that I can maximize my enjoyment of life.
As you can see, sometimes your first “why” may not be enough to fully connect with your deepest values. By continuing to question why things matter to you, you can discover the values that truly drive your motivation, internalize these values, and create a greater sense of autonomy in your life.
More Articles Related To Motivation & Goal-Setting
Here are a few additional articles that may help you learn more about motivation and how to reach your goals.
You do many things every day, and all of these actions require some sort of motivation. While some things in life will unavoidably be externally motivated, you can increase the level of intrinsic or autonomous motivation in your life by exploring the theory and tips above. Increasing your autonomy is the basis for self-determination, and being more self-determined may, in turn, improve your productivity, mood, and overall well-being.