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.
Deci, E. (1971). Effects Of Externally Mediated Rewards On Intrinsic Motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,18(1), 105-115
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.
Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2008). Self-determination Theory: A Macrotheory Of Human Motivation, Development, And Health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(3), 182-185.
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.