Self-Determination Theory (SDT) was developed by researchers Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. This theory concerns with human motivation, personality and optimal functioning. Rather than just the amount of motivation, self-determination theory focuses on different types of motivation.
Since positive psychology deals with positive emotions and ways to nurture individual’s strengths, SDT is useful in merging a good amount of work in positive psychology.
SDT claims that people have three innate psychological needs which are considered as universal necessities. SDT also asserts that there are different approaches to motivation, and differentiates between different types of motivation.
This article contains:
The surprising truth about what motivates us…(video)
- Everything about Positive Psychology and the Self
- 9 Positive Psychology Exercises to do With Clients or Students
- The 5 Founding Fathers of Positive Psychology
3 Basic psychological needs
The hypothesis is that people have three basic psychological needs: competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
- First, the need for competence means the desire to control and master the environment and outcome. We want to know how things will turn out and what the results are of our actions.
- Second, the need for relatedness deals with the desire to “interact with, be connected to, and experience caring for other people”. Our actions and daily activities involve other people and through this we seek the feeling of belongingness.
- Thirdly, the need for automony concerns with the urge to be causal agents and to act in harmony with our integrated self. Deci and Ryan stated that to be autonomous does not mean to be independent. It means having a sense of free will when doing something or acting out of our own interests and values.
Different types of motivation
Research has shown that the type or quality of motivation is more important in predicting successful outcomes than the amount of motivation. Deci and Ryan stated that there are two types of motivation: autonomous and controlled.
Autonomous motivation deals with intrinsic motivation and types of extrinsic motivation in which people integrated a value of an activity into their sense of self.
When people are autonomously motivated, they gain self-support and self-advocacy through their own actions. On the other hand, controlled motivation comprises both external and introjected regulation.
External and introjected regulation
In external regulation, an individual’s behaviour is “a function of external contingencies of reward or punishment”.
In introjected relation, the rule of action is somewhat incorporated within one’s self and is encouraged by various factors (e.g., approval motive, ego-involvements, etc.).
When people are controlled, they will have to act, think and feel in certain ways. Both types of motivation excite and instruct behaviours.
Basic needs and motivations
It is believed that the use of the needs for autonomy and competence are linked to our motivations. Deci conducted a study on the effects of extrinsic rewards on people’s intrinsic motivation.
Results showed that when people received extrinsic rewards (e.g., money) for doing something, eventually they were less interested and less likely to do it later, comparing to the people who did the same activity without receiving the reward.
The results were interpreted as the participants’ behaviour, which was initially intrinsically motivated, became controlled by the rewards which lead to undermined sense of autonomy. This concept is beautifully explained in the video by RSA animate that came by already.
What really motivates us?
In another research project, giving people positive feedback about their performance on an activity increased intrinsic motivation. Deci claimed that positive feedback can satisfy people’s need for competence and this can in turn enhance our intrinsic motivation. Positive feedback is seen as a social approval.
Due to our need for competence, we want to belong to and connect with other people. Since affection and verbal approval are not seen as a controlled stimulus, our intrinsic motivation tends to increase. You can read about these studies here.
Some research indicated the relationship between the need for relatedness and intrinsic motivation. However, this relationship seems to be less substantial than the relationship between intrinsic motivation and the need for autonomy or competence.
Self-Determination theory in the workplace
Over the last 40 years, research has continued to show support for SDT. Research by Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, Daniel Pink, and others have shown how intrinsic motivation helps people perform work-related tasks efficiently and effectively (McDaniel, 2011).
Leaders who put SDT into practice create conditions in the work environment that aim to optimize employee motivation through 2 ways: autonomous motivation, that is doing a job because it’s intrinsically consistent with the employee’s values, and controlled motivation, that is doing a job because the employee feels pressured by other forces to do it.
Studies have also shown that the type of motivation that employees have matters more than how much motivation they have when leaders are trying to predict how an employee will be performing.
Rewards are extrinsic motivators, but it does not mean that it is harmful. It can be used appropriately without undermining intrinsic motivation. Rewards shouldn’t be used to control others or make employees dependent on external rewards.
Autonomous motivation should be the key factor to find in promoting SDT, as it more likely increases flexible thinking, high-quality learning, and problem solving (McDaniel, 2011). Employees also have great work satisfaction when fostering their intrinsic motivation (McDaniel, 2011).
Research on self-determination theory
Researchers have examined the relations among autonomous motivation, controlled motivation and goal progress. Three studies have been done and they showed that autonomous motivation is considerably related to goal progress, while controlled motivation is not.
In addition, the results also demonstrated that the effects of autonomous goals could be mediated by greater implementation planning. You can read more about those studies here.
The handbook of self-determination research serves as a great starting point if you want to understand the foundation of research that has been done into SDT.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
Ryan & Deci (2000) define intrinsic motivation as
“ ..doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequences”
Simply put, an individual is intrinsically motivated to do something when he/she likes what they are doing. For instance, artists love painting, they paint for the sake of the activity itself, for the positive experience of performing not for the potential secondary gains that may arise from doing what they love.
The core of intrinsic motivation is recognizing that every individual has that activity, action or behavior which they love to do and which they are motivated to perform for just this reason.
Extrinsic motivation on the other hand as defined by (Deci & Ryan,1985; Ryan & Deci,2000) is
“ a construct that pertains whenever an activity is done in order to attain some separable outcome.”
This definition posits the contrast between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation by explaining the difference in motive behind an individual’s involvement in an activity. Whilst one is performance for the joy of engaging the other is action for a different and separate result.
For example, let us imagine two individuals exercise by riding a bike every day. Though both of them are perform the same activity, the driving force could be very different.
If one of them is trying to lose weight and to have better self esteem, she performs this activity for this separate outcome. This individual is therefore extrinsically motivated because the act of riding a bike is for a different outcome than the enjoyment of the exercise itself.
Meanwhile the second individual loves to ride his bike, though he too will have secondary benefits from the exercise, he gets on his bike and exercises every day because he enjoys the adrenaline, freedom and experience of flow he feels from his favourite sport.
The SDT Continuum
Controlled motivation relates to motivation that arises from external contingencies and introjected regulation whilst autonomous motivation is defined as the type of motivation which individuals ideally have integrated into their sense of self where they can perceive the inherent value of a specific activity or behaviour.
Deci & Ryan (1985) go further still by recognizing that both autonomous and controlled motivation are comprised of factors of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Here is figure showing the continuum of motivation as explained in the SDT:
In addition, the SDT presents two sub theories to account for a more nuanced understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. These sub theories are Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) and Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) which help explain intrinsic motivation with regards to its social factors and the various degrees of contextual factors that influence extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Let’s take a deeper look:
Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET)
According to CET intrinsic motivation can be facilitating or undermining, depending on the social and environmental factors in play. Referring to the Needs Theory, Deci & Ryan (1985,2000) argue that interpersonal events, rewards, communication and feedback that gear towards feelings of competence when performing an activity will enhance intrinsic motivation for that particular activity.
However, this level of intrinsic motivation is not attained if the individual doesn’t feel that the performance itself is self- determined or that they had the autonomous choice to perform this activity.
So, for a high level of intrinsic motivation two psychological needs have to be fulfilled:
- The first is competence, so that the activity results in feelings of self-development and efficacy.
- The second is the need for autonomy that performance of the chosen activity was self-initiated or self-determined.
Thus for CET theory to hold true, motivation needs to be intrinsic and have an appeal to the individual. It also implies that intrinsic motivation will be enhanced or undermined depending on whether the needs for autonomy and competence are supported or thwarted respectively.
Organismic Integration Theory (OIT)
The second sub theory is Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) which argues that extrinsic motivation depends on the extent to which autonomy is present.
In other words, extrinsic motivation varies according to the internalization and integration of the value of the activity. Internalization is how well the value of an activity is felt while integration explains the process of individual transformation from external regulation to their own self-regulated version (Ryan & Deci,2000).
For instance, school assignments are an externally regulated activity. Internalization in this situation can be understood as the child seeing the value and importance of the assignment while integration in this situation would be the degree to which he perceives performing the assignment as his own choice.
The OIT thus offers us a greater perspective into the difference levels of extrinsic motivation which exist and the processes of internalization and integration which could eventually result in the autonomous choice of performing the activity for its intrinsic perceived joy and value.
The Self-Determination Theory of motivation is a comprehensive framework which is crucial to our understanding of motivation. The SDT expands the constricted, unitary concept of intrinsic motivation in terms of its greater social context (CET) and extrinsic motivation in terms of its process of internalization and integration (OIT) thus presenting a multifaceted, nuanced picture of just why we do what we do.
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Deci, E., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2004). Self-determination theory and basic need satisfaction: Understanding human development in positive psychology. Ricerche Di Psicologia, 27(1), 23-40.
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Koestner, R., Otis, N., Powers, T., Pelletier, L., & Gagnon, H. (2008). Autonomous Motivation, Controlled Motivation, And Goal Progress. Journal of Personality, 1201-1230
McDaniel, J. (2011). Self-Determination Theory and Employee Motivation: An Overview. Achieve Goal.
2nd part of the article:
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