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Self-Determination Theory

The theory of motivation is sometimes referred to as Self-Determination Theory. It specifically defines the motives that fuel people’s behavior. It also defines how psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence, as well as one's social environment, can support or undermine motivation.

Self-Determination Theory visual

Read on to learn more about the science behind Self-Determination Theory. 


Two people on running track

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

When people are motivated around a given behavior, and the behavior is not important to them, they don’t believe they have the ability to carry out the behavior, and/or they don’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, punishments and internalized pressures from others. It can also 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 they have a choice in how to behave. For example, people can be driven by:

  • Reward: People might try to lose weight because their employer will pay them to lose weight.
  • Punishment: People might try to lose weight because their insurance company will raise the cost of their health insurance if they don’t lose weight.
  • Internal Pressure: People might try to lose weight because others have told them they should lose weight or they will be upset with them.
  • Value: People might try to lose weight because they want to be healthier and be a positive role model for their kids.
  • Interest/Enjoyment: People might try to lose weight because they really like exercising and eating in a healthy way.

When people are mainly motivated by rewards, punishments, and internal pressure, they have a harder time initiating and maintaining their behaviors over the long term. However, when people are more autonomous—that is, when people are motivated more by their value for the behavior, 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 one has choice 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.

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.

  • Autonomy is supported by attempting to grasp and acknowledge the person's wishes, preferences and perspectives, conveying understanding of their point of view, providing a rationale for engaging in a behavior, and providing choice in how to behave. Supporting someone’s autonomy also means refraining from trying to control or pressure them to act in a certain way.
  • Competence is supported by providing the person with optimal challenges and opportunities (specific goals that are challenging enough, but not overwhelming), encouraging their 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.
  • Finally, relatedness is supported when others are involved and show interest in the person’s activities, are empathic in responding to their 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, are more likely to persist at their behaviors, and feel better overall.

Here at the Center for Community Health & Prevention, our approach is focused on helping you discover what works for you on your journey to making healthy changes in your life.