Motivation – Self Determination Theory

By Optimum Strength on December 29, 2016 - Category: Goals , Mindset , Motivation , Psychology

In psychology, motivation is defined as “the direction and intensity of one’s efforts”. But where does this drive originate from?

One of the most robust and tested macro-theories of motivation is Self Determination Theory (SDT), developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. This theory contends that people are motivated to satisfy three basic human needs; autonomy, competence, and relatedness; and the degree to which these needs are met shapes a persons motivation.


Autonomy is defined as the universal urge to be the causal agents of one’s own life, and act in harmony with one’s integrated self.

This isn’t as simple as freedom of choice. In terms of motivation, autonomy doesn’t just mean freedom to choose what you do, it means having free will and then choosing to act in accordance with your own values.

Are the choices you are making what the best version of yourself would do? Or are your choices based on avoiding guilt or shame from others, or doing what others expect from you, or are you forced by circumstance into certain decisions?


Competence refers to the desire to learn new skills and experience mastery, managing our environment around us and controlling the outcomes. We want to know that we are in control of what we are doing, and how things will turn out.


Relatedness is a sense of shared experience. Of human empathy. The universal human need to interact with, be connected to, and experience caring for other people.

The Self-Determination Continuum

The manner in which these needs are fulfilled leads to a continuum of motivation, ranging from amotivation (not motivated), to varying levels of extrinsic motivation, and then to intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Is the ideal state of motivation. Characterised by the intrinsic rewards of Knowledge, Accomplishment, and Stimulation.

Knowledge Engaging in behaviours and activities for the pleasure and satisfaction of learning, exploring, and understanding something new or novel.

Accomplishment The pleasure and satisfaction of mastering difficult skills, tasks, or processes.

Stimulation Experiencing pleasure through the behaviour or activity itself.

Extrinsic Motivation

Integrated Regulation

This is the most autonomous form of extrinsic motivation. The goal or behaviour is viewed as personally important, and fully assimilated with a persons view of themselves, but because the value is attached to the outcome, rather than the value of the activity in and of itself, it is still viewed as extrinsic.

Identified Regulation

Here, the behaviour is highly valued, accepted, and is performed willingly, even though the activity itself may not be enjoyable. The motivations are still mostly external in nature.

Introjected Regulation

Motivation by internal pressures, based on external contingencies. The need to look good because of social pressures is a classic example of this type of motivation, and the issues it can create. Deci and Ryan describe this behaviour as being contingent on self-esteem and ego.

External Regulation

The least autonomous behaviour, it is entirely controlled by external sources such as extrinsic rewards, punishments, or constraints. The classic idea of the carrot and the stick.


In this case, an individual is neither intrinsically not extrinsically motivated, and thus has pervasive feelings of incompetence and a lack of control. This leads to not caring about outcomes, and possible negative behaviour which will only make matters worse.

Do Extrinsic Rewards undermine Intrinsic Motivations?

Intuitively, it may seem that combining extrinsic and intrinsic motivations would produce even more motivation. The opposite appears to be true.

In one of the six sub-theories used to make up the framework of SDT, Cognitive Evaluation Theory, Deci and Ryan found that events which affect a persons feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, will also affect their levels of intrinsic motivation.

These events, such as the distribution of rewards, quality and quantity of feedback and reinforcement, and the way in which situations are structured, will have 2 functional outcomes; a controlling aspect, and an informational aspect.

The controlling aspect relates to a persons perceived locus of control in a given situation. If an extrinsic reward is viewed as controlling one’s behaviour, then people believe the cause of their behaviour arises from outside of themselves, meaning they have less autonomy, and thus intrinsic motivation decreases. People who are intrinsically motivated do things because they want to, rather than for external reward.

In experiments, when financial rewards were offered for performing tasks which had previously been enjoyable, such as crossword puzzles and ball games, the motivation to participate in these tasks decreased, to the point where people who had previously had fun with these tasks, later avoided doing them.

Likewise, the informational aspect can have an affect depending on how it is viewed by the person. Feedback or recognition relating to a persons perceived competence which is viewed positively can increase intrinsic motivation, but negative feedback or reinforcement, particularly in social situations, can have de-motivating consequences.


Another incorporated theory of SDT is Goals Content Theory.

The way in which we frame our goals affects our attitudes towards them. Goals which seem to originate from outside of ourselves, extrinsically, tend to have a negative effect on our long-term motivation and psychological well-being, whereas goals that have more to do with our values, intrinsically, increase long-term motivation and well-being.

This brings us back to the introjected regulation from above, going to the gym to look good and be healthy for yourself is great, but if you are doing it to conform to social pressures, it’s less likely to be effective. How much did you choosing a particular goal have to do with you, and how much did it have to do with other people, or perhaps your perceptions of other people.

A more instrinsic goal would be to enjoy training and practicing as a means of improving your abilities, getting your first chin up, running faster and further, seeing your body change in a positive way as a result of enjoying the process, not being driven by the outcome.

One important thing to note about motivation is that it is multivariate, meaning that you aren’t motivated by a single idea or motive, but by all of your possible motives, to varying degrees at various stages, and while they are all important in motivating your behaviours, the more priority given to intrinsic motivations the better.

If you take the time to reflect on the intrinsic reasons you want to achieve a goal, you’ll be more likely to achieve it, and enjoy the process of doing so.