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Self-Determination Theory

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The theory of motivation is sometimes referred to as Self-Determination Theory. It specifically defines the motives that fuel people’s behavior and it also defines how the social environment can support or undermine people’s motivation.


Early ideas of motivation simply suggested that you either have it (you are motivated) or you don’t (you are motivated or unmotivated). However, over 40 years of research have shown that motivation is much more complex than this.

When people are motivated around a given behavior and the behavior is not important to the person, the person doesn't believe he/she has the ability to carry out the behavior, and/or he/she doesn’t have ability to produce a desired outcome.

When people don’t believe they have the ability to carry out the behavior (e.g., I don’t have knowledge about good nutrition and how to eat healthier) and/or they don’t have ability to produce a desired outcome (e.g., Even when I eat healthier I don’t lose weight), they often feel frustrated and give up. In this case, they need more assistance in understanding their own goals, identifying barriers, and gathering the knowledge, skills, and support to re-engage in the behavior.

Motivated behavior can be driven by rewards and punishments and internalized pressures from others or it can be fueled by deeply held values or interest and enjoyment of the behavior itself. In simple terms, people can feel more pressured or controlled to behave in a certain way or they can feel more volitional or autonomous to behave.

For example, people might try to lose weight because their employer will pay them to lose weight (reward), because their insurance company will raise the cost of their health insurance if they don’t lose weight (punishment), because others have told them they should lose weight or they will be upset with them (internal pressure), because they want to be healthier and be a positive role model for their kids (value), or because they really like exercising and eating in a healthy way (interest/enjoyment).

When people are mainly motivated by rewards, punishments, and internal pressures, they have a harder time initiating and maintaining their behaviors (e.g., exercising and eating healthy to lose weight) over the long term. However, when people are more autonomous—that is, when people are motivated more so by their value for the behavior (e.g., I want to be healthy) or other goals that are served by engaging in the behavior (e.g., By eating healthier I am a good role model for my kids and can be around longer for them), or by their interest and enjoyment of the behavior—they tend to be more persistent in their behavior, feel more satisfied, and have higher well-being overall.

Psychological Needs

Motivation theory suggests that all humans have three basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that underlie growth and development. Autonomy refers to feeling volitional and willingly endorsing one’s behavior. The opposite experience is feeling compelled or controlled in one’s behavior. Competence refers to the experience of mastery and being effective in one’s activity. Finally, relatedness, refers to the need to feel connected and belongingness with others.

How Others Support Basic Psychological Needs

The social environment (e.g., family, friends, co-workers, doctors, culture, etc.) can promote or get in the way of people’s strivings by the extent to which they support a person’s basic psychological needs.

Support for autonomy is shown by attempting to grasp and acknowledge the person's wishes, preferences, and perspectives, conveying understanding of the person’s point of view, providing a rationale for engaging in a behavior (e.g., making a health behavior change), and providing choice in how to behave. It also means refraining from trying to control or pressure a person to act in a certain way.

Competence is supported by providing optimal challenges and opportunities (specific goals and challenging enough but not overwhelming), supporting the person’s sense of initiation (try it out!), providing structure to mobilize and organize behavior, providing consistent and clear expectations, rules, and consequences), and providing relevant feedback (how to improve/learn in skill sets).

Finally, relatedness is supported when others are involved and show interest in a person’s activities, are empathic in responding to a person’s feelings, and convey that the person is significant, cared for, and loved.

When these needs are optimally supported, evidence suggests that people are more autonomous in their behaviors, they are more likely to persist at their behaviors, and they feel better overall.