Self-Determination Theory: What Motivates You?

Self-Determination Theory: What Motivates You?

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) was developed by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, professors of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology at the University of Rochester.

The theory posits that “people have innate psychological needs that are the basis for self-motivation and personality integration.

Beyond the more popular external factors that motivate us like reward systems/ wealth and outside opinions/ reputation, we each have a unique drive within us that can sustain our passions and creativity.

Remember that one time you spent days burrowing down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, reading about your favorite conspiracy theory? There’s no real external reward that comes with knowing 3,589 “facts” about aliens, but that joy you get from feeding your curiosity can fuel you for a surprising amount of time! This is the territory that the professors focused their SDT research on – the interplay between our internal motivation and the external environment in which we exist.

According to their findings, there are three universal needs that have to be met, in order for any individual to initiate behavior that is essential for psychological health, well-being, and optimal growth.

  1. The need for autonomy (desire to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self; however, this does not mean to be independent of others)
  2. The need for competence (seek to control the outcome and experience mastery)
  3. The need for relatedness (will to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others)

In the SDT module of motivation, we function at our best when we feel we are acting out of our own volition to perform tasks that we are capable of executing to completion in a satisfactory manner; and that we are welcome to ask for help from others should we need it.

Within SDT, the nutriments for healthy development and functioning are specified using the concept of basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. To the extent that the needs are ongoingly satisfied, people will develop and function effectively and experience wellness, but to the extent that they are thwarted, people will more likely evidence ill-being and non-optimal functioning. The darker sides of human behavior and experience, such as certain types of psychopathology, prejudice, and aggression are understood in terms of reactions to basic needs having been thwarted, either developmentally or proximally.

Using SDT to guide your own behavior

In applying the SDT approach to motivation, you need to nurture your community/ support system, develop your skill-set, and set goals that are within your reach and inline with your personal beliefs and interests.

Maintaining this delicate balance of needs will ensure that you do not feel overwhelmed with tasks or lose interest before completion.

In the event that one of the three intrinsic needs is out of your control, seek to adjust the other two, to compensate for the imbalance. For instance, even though tests, grading systems and deadlines may take away your autonomy in a school setting, you can choose to surround yourself with like-minded individuals in a study group, or major in subjects that you already have a deep interest in.

Using SDT to guide other people’s behavior

When you’re in a position of leadership or looking to help the people that you care about, offer your support, but be careful not to stifle them. Allow them to feel like they have the choice to take your support, or leave it, without risking any negative outcomes.

Additionally, don’t reward behavior that’s already intrinsically enjoyable to someone. Attaching an external reward to an intrinsic motive undermines the person’s autonomy and thus reduces their interest and overall performance.


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