How Self-Determination Influences Motivation

By Kendra Cherry 

Self-determination refers to a person’s ability to make choices and manage their own life. Being self-determined means that you feel in greater control, as opposed to being non-self-determined, which can leave you feeling that your life is controlled by others.

Self-determination is an important concept in psychology since it plays a role in psychological health and well-being. Promoting self-determination is also an emerging best practice when working with certain populations, such as individuals with intellectual disabilities.1

Self-determination theory seeks to explain how being self-determined impacts motivation—that people feel more motivated to take action when they think that what they do will have an effect on the outcome. Learn more about how this theory works, as well as what you can do to improve your self-determination skills.

What Is Self-Determination Theory?

Self-determination theory states that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate (and universal) psychological needs. The concept of intrinsic motivation, or engaging in activities for the inherent reward of the behavior itself, plays an important role in this theory.

Self-determination theory suggests that people can become self-determined when their needs for competence, connection, and autonomy are fulfilled.

Self-determination theory grew out of the work of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who first introduced their ideas in their 1985 book Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior. They developed a theory of motivation that suggests people tend to be driven by a need to grow and gain fulfillment.

Assumptions of Self-Determination

Self-determination theory makes two key assumptions:

The need for growth drives behavior. The first assumption of self-determination theory is that people are actively directed toward growth. Gaining mastery over challenges and taking in new experiences are essential for developing a cohesive sense of self.

Autonomous motivation is important. While people are often motivated to act by external rewards such as money, prizes, and acclaim (known as extrinsic motivation), self-determination theory focuses primarily on internal sources of motivation such as a need to gain knowledge or independence (intrinsic motivation).

 Differences Between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Components of Self-Determination

According to self-determination theory, people need to feel the following to achieve psychological growth:

  • Autonomy: People need to feel in control of their own behaviors and goals. This sense of being able to take direct action that will result in real change plays a major part in helping people feel self-determined.
  • Competence: People need to gain mastery of tasks and learn different skills. When people feel that they have the skills needed for success, they are more likely to take actions that will help them achieve their goals.
  • Connection or relatedness: People need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people.

How Self-Determination Theory Works

It’s important to realize that the psychological growth described by self-determination theory does not happen automatically. While people might be oriented toward such growth, it requires continual sustenance.

Ryan and Deci have suggested that the tendency to be either proactive or passive is largely influenced by the social conditions in which we are raised. Social support is key. Through our relationships and interactions with others, we can foster or thwart well-being and personal growth.

Other factors that also help or hinder the three elements needed for growth include:

  • Extrinsic motivators can sometimes lower self-determination. According to Deci, giving people extrinsic rewards for intrinsically motivated behavior can undermine autonomy. As the behavior becomes increasingly controlled by external rewards, people begin to feel less in control of their behavior and intrinsic motivation is diminished.
  • Positive feedback can boost self-determination. Deci also suggests that offering unexpected positive encouragement and feedback on a person’s task performance can increase intrinsic motivation. This type of feedback helps people feel more competent, which is a key need for personal growth.

 How Overjustification Reduces Intrinsic Motivation

Example of Self-Determination

Imagine a person who fails to complete an important project at work. If this person is high in self-determination, they will admit their fault, believe that they can do something to fix the problem, and take action to correct the mistake.

If that same person was low in self-determination, they might instead look for other things that they can blame. They might make excuses, assign blame elsewhere, or refuse to admit their own role in not completing the project on time.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that the person low in self-determination won’t feel motivated to fix the mistake. Instead, they might feel helpless to control the situation and believe that nothing that they do will have any real effect.

Self-Determined vs. Non-Self-Determined Behaviors

Self-Determined Behaviors

  • Motivated by intrinsic rewards
  • Driven by enjoyment, interest, or satisfaction
  • Feel in control

Non-Self-Determined Behaviors

  • Motivated by extrinsic rewards
  • Driven by obligation or responsibility
  • Feel a lack of control

Rather than thinking of motivation as being driven by either extrinsic or intrinsic rewards, it is often helpful to view it as a continuum between self-determined and non-self-determined behaviors.

  • On one end of the continuum are purely self-determined behaviors that tend to be intrinsically driven and done for the enjoyment of, interest in, and inherent satisfaction for the action itself.
  • On the other end are non-self-determined behaviors, which are performed only because they must be done. There is a complete lack of control on this extreme end of the scale.

If you are training to compete in a marathon, for example, you might be extrinsically motivated by a desire to gain approval from others. At the same time, you may also be intrinsically motivated by the satisfaction you gain from the activity itself. In most cases, behaviors tend to lie in the middle of the continuum.

There is also often a varying amount of external motivation, which can fuel the degree of internal motivation. People may engage in actions because they feel they have some level of personal control and the behaviors ultimately align with something that is important for their self-concept.

Most actions are not purely self-determined or non-self-determined. Instead, actions often rely on a certain degree of self-determination that may also be influenced by extrinsic motivations.

Impact of Self-Determination

The concept of self-determination has been applied to a wide variety of areas including education, work, parenting, exercise, and health. Research suggests that having high self-determination can foster success in many different domains of life.

In the Workplace

People with self-determination feel more satisfied at work while also playing a key role in that organization’s success. How can employers build self-determination in their workers?

  • By allowing team members to take an active role
  • Not overusing extrinsic rewards since this can undercut intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect
  • Offering employees greater responsibilities
  • Offering support and encouragement
  • Providing employees with meaningful feedback

In Competition

In competitive settings, such as sports and athletics, fostering a sense of self-determination can motivate people to excel. Some suggest that it works, at least in part, by increasing a person’s level of mental toughness.

Athletes who feel that they are capable of achieving their goals and overcoming challenges are often driven to perform better. Excelling allows them to gain a sense of competence and build mastery in skills that are enjoyable and important to them.

Researchers have also found that people with an internal sense of control are more likely to stick to a healthy diet and regular exercise regimen.

In Social Settings

Self-determination can also play an important role in social relationships. For instance, when people are new to an online group, if their needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence (the three components of self-determination) are fulfilled, it impacts their social identity which, in turn, affects their participation behaviors.6

To forge close, affectionate relationships with others, thus potentially improving self-determination:

  • Seek positive relationships with people who will support you in the pursuit of your goals.
  • Offer support and feedback to people who are part of your social circle.

In School Settings

Self-determined students are more likely to feel motivated to achieve. They also tend to feel greater levels of competence and satisfaction. Educators can help students foster a sense of self-determination and intrinsic motivation by:

  • Providing unexpected positive feedback when students perform well to help improve their feelings of competence
  • Avoiding excessive external rewards for actions students already enjoy, which helps improve their internal motivation

Self-determination can play an important role in how people function in many different areas of their lives. Feeling in control and intrinsically motivated can help people feel more committed, passionate, interested, and satisfied with the things that they do.

Traits of Self-Determined People

If you are interested in strengthening your self-determination, it is helpful to think about what a highly self-determined individual might look like. People high in self-determination tend to:

  • Believe that they have control over their own lives.Self-determined people have an internal locus of control and feel that their behaviors will have an influence on outcomes. When confronted with challenges, they feel that they can overcome them through diligence, good choices, and hard work.
  • Have high self-motivation. Someone with high self-determination doesn’t rely on external rewards or punishments to motivate them to take action. Instead, they engage in behaviors because they are motivated intrinsically. They have an internal desire to set goals and work toward them.
  • Base their actions on their own goals and behaviors.In other words, people with self-motivation intentionally engage in actions that they know will bring them closer to their goals.
  • Take responsibility for their behaviors. Highly self-determined people take credit for their success but they also accept the blame for their failures. They know that they are responsible for their actions and don’t shift blame elsewhere.

How to Improve Your Self-Determination

Do you want to be more self-determined? There are a few steps you can take to improve your own self-determination skills.

Improve Your Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is associated with self-determination and can even help prepare you to make more purposeful decisions. Meditation, seeking regular feedback, and writing down your thoughts and feelings are all ways to improve self-awareness.

Engage in Self-Regulation

Developing a higher level of self-determination involves also working on your self-regulation skills. Strategies that can help you better regulate yourself include being more mindful of how you feel mentally and physically, along with practicing cognitive reframing to better regulate your emotional responses.

Find Social Support

Strong social relationships can foster motivation and well-being. Seek people who make you feel welcome and cared for. This may be a family member or friend, or it could be a member of your church, a counselor, or anyone else who provides a sense of support and belonging.

Gain Mastery

Becoming skilled in areas that are important to you can help build your sense of self-determination. Whether you have a strong interest in a hobby, sport, academic subject, or another area, learning as much as you can about it and improving your skills can help you feel more competent.

The more you learn and practice, the more skilled and self-determined you will likely feel.

A Word From Verywell

Self-determination theory can be helpful in understanding what might motivate your behaviors. Being self-determined, feeling like you have the autonomy and freedom to make choices that shape your destiny, is important for each person’s well-being.

When you pursue things that are intrinsically motivated and aligned with your goals, you will feel happier and more capable of making good choices.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

Why We Do What We Do Summary

Thanks for exploring this SuperSummary Plot Summary of “Why We Do What We Do” by Edward L. Deci, Richard Flaste. A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.

Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation (1995), an educational self-help book by Edward L. Deci (with Richard Flaste), considers why we’re motivated to do the things we do, and how to foster someone’s sense of autonomy and commitment. The book is generally popular with readers of personal development books for its original insights and thought-provoking questions. Deci is the Professor of Psychology and Gowen Professor in Social Sciences at the University of Rochester. He is the co-founder of the self-determination theory explored in this book.

Why We Do What We Do asks a basic question—what is the best way to motivate someone to accomplish a task? Deci argues that, traditionally, we tell people that they must do things in order to get rewards, such as leisure time. They are only interested in the reward, and if the reward isn’t there, they won’t complete the task on their own initiative.

Deci considers, then, if motivating other people is really the best way to get things done. It may be better to encourage people to motivate themselves. This is where the self-determination theory, or SDT, comes into play. Self-determination means teaching people to become more autonomous. It means relying on internal motivators instead of external motivators to make us do things.

Deci gives an example from a controlled experiment. He asks two groups to complete visual puzzles. He offers one group money if they complete the task; he doesn’t offer the other group anything. When he leaves the room, the group working for money stops to take a break. The group working for fun, however, keeps going. This shows that one group was self-motivated. Deci suggests that internal motivation, then, is superior to external influences.

We may wonder why motivation is important. Deci attempts to answer this conundrum, explaining that intrinsically motivated people not only enjoy what they do, but they’re also motivated to find more creative solutions to problems, and they’re open to learning new things. Being intrinsically motivated is better for our mental health, because we feel more in control, and we understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. We don’t lose our sense of purpose when an external motivator or reward is taken away.

Deci enriches Why We Do What We Do using many other examples to support his position. He takes communist Romania as another example. In Romania, people can leave their workplace at any time to go and do what they feel like. However, they don’t have any choice as to what jobs they do. They’re not intrinsically motivated, because they’re stuck in jobs they didn’t choose.

Compare this to a capitalist economy where people work many hours to buy what they want. In these economies, people worry that, if they don’t work hard enough, they’ll lose their job, even if they have more freedom to find another. These people are just as trapped, and suffer as little intrinsic motivation, as their communist counterparts. Neither way of working is desirable.

Desi wonders, then, how the average person can be truly free. He accepts that there will always be some form of external motivator—whether it’s the need for money to live or a roof over our heads—but that we must find what motivates us personally. Understanding what passions drive us, and what makes us happy, allows us to feel more fulfilled at work and in life.

Deci considers that there is one interest we all have in common—the world at large. By fostering our curiosity, our interest in one another, and our talents, we can bring out the best in each other. We can help people feel more engaged in their environment, and less focused on external rewards that they don’t really care about. We each work more effectively when we’re driven, and we’re less effective when we’re pressured and forced into doing something for the activity’s sake.

Deci identifies steps we must take to drive ourselves. Most importantly, we must feel in control. Our actions must feel like our own, even if we are simply choosing to go along with external controls. Going along with something purely because someone tells us that we must is the opposite of controlling our own lives. Deci urges parents to recognize this when they are motivating their children to complete tasks.

Furthermore, we must get over our egos. Ego makes us do things to achieve external rewards, such as status and wealth. It doesn’t motivate us to do well when those external rewards are taken away—for example, if we’re fired. If we allow our worth to be determined by our external success, we will always be unmotivated and unhappy.

Essentially, Deci explains that people must feel more engaged in their own lives if they are to become more successful. Children must be taught to set their own limits and decide what makes them happy. They should be motivated to better themselves and develop passions. Teaching children to want to improve themselves for personal development’s sake, and their inner fulfillment is one of the most important lessons we can give them.

Self Determination Theory and How It Explains Motivation

21 Jun 2018 by Courtney E. Ackerman, MA. 

What is Self-Determination Theory? Definition and Examples (+PDF)

You may be familiar with “self-determination” in the context of foundational government documents and speeches from people long-dead.

Traditionally, self-determination has been more used in this diplomatic and political context to describe the process a country undergoes to assert its independence.

However, self-determination also has a more personal and psychology-relevant meaning today: the ability or process of making one’s own choices and controlling one’s own life.

Self-determination is a vital piece of psychological wellbeing; as you may expect, people like to feel control of their own lives.

In addition to this idea of controlling one’s own destiny, the theory of self-determination is relevant to anyone hoping to guide their live more.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.

This Article Contains:

What is the Meaning of Self-Determination Theory?

Self-Determination Theory, or SDT, links personality, human motivation, and optimal functioning. It posits that there are two main types of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic—and that both are powerful forces in shaping who we are and how we behave (Deci & Ryan, 2008).

It is a theory that grew out of researchers Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan’s work on motivation in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it has grown and expanded since then, the basic tenets of the theory come from Deci and Ryan’s seminal 1985 book on the topic.

Relevant reading: Intrinsic Coaching: What Is It and How to Apply It?

Deci and Ryan’s Theory of Motivation (1985)

According to Deci and Ryan, extrinsic motivation is a drive to behave in certain ways based on external sources and it results in external rewards (1985). Such sources include grading systems, employee evaluations, awards and accolades, and the respect and admiration of others.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation comes from within. There are internal drives that inspire us to behave in certain ways, including our core values, our interests, and our personal sense of morality.

It might seem like intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are diametrically opposed—with intrinsic driving behavior in keeping with our “ideal self” and extrinsic leading us to conform with the standards of others—but there is another important distinction in the types of motivation. SDT differentiates between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2008).

Autonomous motivation includes motivation that comes from internal sources and includes motivation from extrinsic sources for individuals who identify with an activity’s value and how it aligns with their sense of self. Controlled motivation is comprised of external regulation—a type of motivation where an individual acts out of the desire for external rewards or fear of punishment.

On the other hand, introjected regulation is motivation from “partially internalized activities and values” such as avoiding shame, seeking approval, and protecting the ego.

When an individual is driven by autonomous motivation, they may feel self-directed and autonomous; when the individual is driven by controlled motivation, they may feel pressure to behave in a certain way, and thus, experience little to no autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2008).

The Self-Determination Model, Scale, and Continuum

We are complex beings who are rarely driven by only one type of motivation. Different goals, desires, and ideas inform us what we want and need. Thus, it is useful to think of motivation on a continuum ranging from “non-self-determined to self-determined.”

Self Determination Theory Diagram

At the left end of the spectrum, we have amotivation, in which an individual is completely non-autonomous, has no drive to speak of, and is struggling to have any of their needs met. In the middle, we have several levels of extrinsic motivation.

One step to the right of amotivation is external regulation, in which motivation is exclusively external and regulated by compliance, conformity, and external rewards and punishments.

The next level of extrinsic motivation is termed introjected regulation, in which the motivation is somewhat external and is driven by self-control, efforts to protect the ego, and internal rewards and punishments.

In identified regulation, the motivation is somewhat internal and based on conscious values and that which is personally important to the individual.

The final step of extrinsic motivation is integrated regulation, in which intrinsic sources and the desire to be self-aware are guiding an individual’s behavior.

The right end of the continuum shows an individual entirely motivated by intrinsic sources. In intrinsic regulation, the individual is self-motivated and self-determined, and driven by interest, enjoyment, and the satisfaction inherent in the behavior or activity he or she is engaging in.

Although self-determination is generally the goal for individuals, we can’t help but be motivated by external sources—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are highly influential determinants of our behavior, and both drive us to meet the three basic needs identified by the SDT model:

Autonomy: people have a need to feel that they are the masters of their own destiny and that they have at least some control over their lives; most importantly, people have a need to feel that they are in control of their own behavior.

Competence: another need concerns our achievements, knowledge, and skills; people have a need to build their competence and develop mastery over tasks that are important to them.

Relatedness (also called Connection): people need to have a sense of belonging and connectedness with others; each of us needs other people to some degree (Deci & Ryan, 2008).

According to the developers of SDT, Deci and Richard M. Ryan, individual differences in personality result from the varying degrees to which each need has been satisfied—or thwarted (2008). The two main aspects on which individuals differ include causality orientations and aspirations or life goals.

Causality orientations refer to how people adapt and orient themselves to their environment and their degree of self-determination in general, across many different contexts. The three causality orientations are:

  1. Autonomous: all three basic needs are satisfied.
  2. Controlled: competence and relatedness are somewhat satisfied but autonomy is not.
  3. Impersonal: none of the three needs are satisfied.

Aspirations or life goals are what people use to guide their own behavior. They generally fall into one of the two categories of motivation mentioned earlier: intrinsic or extrinsic. Deci and Ryan provide affiliation, generativity, and personal development as examples of intrinsic life goals, while they list wealth, fame, and attractiveness as examples of extrinsic life goals (2008).

Aspirations and life goals drive us, but they are considered learned desires instead of basic needs like autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

SDT presents two sub-theories for a more nuanced understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. These sub-theories are Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) and Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) which help explain intrinsic motivation with regards to its social factors and the various degrees of contextual factors that influence extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Let’s take a deeper look:

Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET)

According to CET intrinsic motivation can be facilitating or undermining, depending on the social and environmental factors in play. Referring to the Needs Theory, Deci & Ryan (1985,2000) argue that interpersonal events, rewards, communication and feedback that gear towards feelings of competence when performing an activity will enhance intrinsic motivation for that particular activity.

However, this level of intrinsic motivation is not attained if the individual doesn’t feel that the performance itself is self-determined or that they had the autonomous choice to perform this activity.

So, for a high level of intrinsic motivation two psychological needs have to be fulfilled:

  • The first is competence so that the activity results in feelings of self-development and efficacy.
  • The second is the need for autonomy that the performance of the chosen activity was self-initiated or self-determined.

Thus for CET theory to hold true, motivation needs to be intrinsic and have an appeal to the individual. It also implies that intrinsic motivation will be enhanced or undermined depending on whether the needs for autonomy and competence are supported or thwarted respectively.

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, compared to people who did the same activity without receiving the reward.

The results were interpreted as the participants’ behavior, which was initially intrinsically motivated, became controlled by the rewards which lead to an undermined sense of autonomy. This concept is beautifully explained in this video by RSA Animate.

Organismic Integration Theory (OIT)

The second sub-theory is Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) that argues that extrinsic motivation depends on the extent to which autonomy is present.

In other words, extrinsic motivation varies according to the internalization and integration of the value of the activity. Internalization is how well the value of an activity is felt while integration explains the process of individual transformation from external regulation to their own self-regulated version (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

For instance, school assignments are externally regulated activities. Internalization here could be if the child sees the value and importance of the assignment; integration in this situation is the degree to which the child perceives performing the assignment as their own choice.

The OIT thus offers us a greater perspective on the different levels of extrinsic motivation that exist and the processes of internalization and integration, which could eventually result in the autonomous choice of performing the activity for its intrinsic perceived joy and value.

Examples of SDT in Psychology

To understand self-determination theory, it can be useful to see some examples of people who are high in self-determination, or thinking and acting in an autonomous and intrinsically motivated fashion.

The best description of a self-determined individual is someone who:

  1. Believes she is in control of her own life.
  2. Takes responsibility for her own behavior (taking credit and blame when either is warranted).
  3. Is self-motivated instead of driven by others’ standards or external sources.
  4. Determines her actions based on her own internal values and goals.

For example, imagine a high school student who fails an important test. If she is high in self-determination—feels responsible for her actions, believes she is in control of her behavior, etc.—she might tell her parents that she could have spent more time studying and that she plans to carve out some extra time to study.

Her plan of action would be the same whether her parents were upset or apathetic, because she herself is motivated by an internal desire to be competent and knowledgeable.

If this same student is low in self-determination—feels that she is not in control of her life and that she is a victim of circumstance—she might blame the teacher for giving a tough test that students were not ready for. She may blame her parents for not helping her study or her friends for distracting her.

If she does care about her grade, it is not due to an internal desire to do well, but a desire to win her parents’ approval, or perhaps bolster her self-image by getting the best grade in the class or impressing her teacher with her knowledge.

The man who decides to start a new hobby because he thinks he’ll enjoy it is exhibiting self-determination, while the man who begins a new hobby because it seems prestigious or impressive, is not.

Similarly, the woman who blames all of her ex-lovers for ruining their relationships is not displaying self-determination; the woman who takes responsibility for her part in contributing to unhappy past relationships is showing self-determination.

You may have spotted the theme here: those who take responsibility for their actions and do things because they align with their own personal values and goals are self-determined. Those who blame others, see themselves as constant victims and do things solely for external approval or recognition, are not.

self-determination theory examples

Self-Determination Theory Questionnaires

If you’re interested in using a questionnaire or scale to measure self-determination, this website is an excellent resource.

Feel free to use any of them for academic or research purposes, but please note that to use any of the scales for commercial purposes, you will need to seek permission from Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan.

They list 17 questionnaires that are either directly or indirectly related to self-determination theory. These questionnaires are listed below.

Aspiration Index

This scale measures the extent to which seven broad goal domains motivate the individual, including wealth, fame, image, personal growth, relationships, community contribution, and health. Respondents rate the importance of each aspiration, their beliefs about the likelihood they will attain each, and the degree to which they have already attained each. You can find the complete packet for this scale here.

Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction Scale (BPNSS)

This scale was developed to assess the extent to which the individual feels each of the three basic needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—have been satisfied in his or her life. This scale has been developed for several contexts, like work and relationships, but there is a more general form as well. You can learn more about this scale or download a version for your own use here.

Christian Religious Internalization Scale (CRIS)

The CRIS, also known as the Religion Self-Regulation Questionnaire or SRQ-R, can determine the reasons why an individual engages in religious behavior. The scale is divided into two subscales: Introjected Regulation, representing the more externally motivating factors, and Identified Regulation, representing the more internally motivation factors.

There is a long form version with 48 items and a shorter, psychometrically sound 12-item version. Click here to learn more about the CRIS.

General Causality Orientations Scale

The General Causality Orientations Scale, or GCOS, can determine the degree to which the respondent embodies the three orientations: the autonomy orientation, the controlled orientation, and the impersonal orientation. The GCOS presents vignettes, or descriptions of common social or achievement-oriented situations, and asks respondents to indicate how typical each of three responses is for them on a 7-point Likert scale.

It is also available in a long form (17 vignettes and 51 items) and a short form (12 vignettes and 36 items). You can learn more about the GCOS or download it at this link.

Health-Care SDT Packet (HC-SDT)

The HC-SDT is comprised of three scales that measure self-regulation (SRQ), perceived competence (PCS), and perceived autonomy supportiveness of healthcare climate (HCCQ), three self-determination constructs related to health behaviors. The scales target four health behaviors: smoking cessation, diet improvement, exercising regularly and drinking responsibly. Click here to learn more about the HC-SDT.

Index of Autonomous Functioning (IAF)

The IAF measures trait autonomy based on three subscales: authorship/self-congruence, interest-taking, and low susceptibility to control. The first subscale assesses the degree to which the individual views his behavior as under his control and the consistency among his behaviors, attitudes, and traits.

The second assesses his ongoing insight into himself and his experiences in an open-minded manner, and the third assesses the absence of internal and external pressures as motivators for his behavior. You can download the scale at this link.

Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI)

This scale was developed for use in experiments, and measures the extent to which respondents found an activity interesting or enjoyable, their perceived competence at the task, the effort they put into the task, how valuable or useful they found it, how much tension or pressure they felt, and how much choice they felt they had while completing it.

The interest/enjoyment subscale is considered the individual’s self-reported level of intrinsic motivation in the experiment. Click here to download the scale and learn more.

Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS)

The MAAS may be familiar to you if you’ve read any of our pieces on mindfulness. It provides a measure of “receptive awareness and attention to present-moment events and experience.” It consists of 15 items, all of which comprise a single factor. SDT co-developer Richard M. Ryan developed this scale with another colleague in 2003. Click here to learn more about the MAAS scale and see suggested reading on mindfulness.

Motivators’ Orientation

The Motivators’ Orientation set of questionnaires measures the extent to which an individual in a supervisory capacity tends to be autonomy-supportive versus controlling. There are two questionnaires designed for specific contexts: the Problems in Schools Questionnaire (PIS) is designed for teachers, while the Problems at Work Questionnaire (PAW) is designed for managers in a work environment.

Each questionnaire requires respondents to read eight vignettes and rate four behavioral options on appropriateness for the situation. The four options represent four tendencies: Highly Autonomy Supportive (HA), Moderately Autonomy Supportive (MA), Moderately Controlling (MC), and Highly Controlling, (HC). You can learn more about these scales here.

Motives for Physical Activity Measure (MPAM-R)

The MPAM-R assesses the strength of five different motivations for participating in a physical activity like team sports, aerobics, or weight lifting: (1) fitness, (2) appearance, (3) competence/challenge, (4) social, and (5) enjoyment. The results of this scale can reliably predict behavioral outcomes like attendance, persistence, and maintained participation, as well as constructs like mental health and wellbeing. You can find more information on this scale at this link.

Perceived Autonomy Support

This is a set of scales that measures the individual’s perceptions of the extent to which a particular social context is autonomy-supportive or controlling. It includes the aforementioned health care climate questionnaire (HCCQ) as well as scales on the learning climate (LCQ), the work climate (WCQ), the sports climate (SCQ), and the parental autonomy support climate (P-PASS).

Respondents rate the autonomy supportiveness of the context on a 7-point scale, with higher scores indicating greater autonomy support. There are two versions for each scale: a long, 15-item version and a short, 5-item version. Click here to learn more about these scales.

Perceived Choice and Awareness of Self Scale (formerly the Self-Determination Scale [SDS])

This scale, which was previously known as simply the Self-Determination Scale (SDS), measures individual differences in perceived choice, or the feeling that one has choices in how to behave, and awareness of self, or the awareness of one’s own feelings and sense of self. The PCASS is only 10 items long and is composed of two 5-item scales (one for each construct). Follow this link to learn more about the PCASS.

Perceived Competence Scale (PCS)

The PCS is a short questionnaire that measures perceived competence in a specific behavior or area. It is only 4 items long, and it is intended to be adapted for the specific behavior or area being studied. Click here to learn more about the PCS.

Perceptions of Parents

This scale for children was designed to measure how autonomy-supportive or controlling they perceive their parents to be. There are two versions of this scale: a 22-item version for children 8 years or older, and a 42-item version for college students. You can learn more about this scale and the two versions here.

Self-Regulation Questionnaires (SRQ)

The SRQ scales measure individual differences in regulation or motivation of behavior. There are seven self-regulation questionnaires listed on the website: the Academic Self-Regulation Questionnaire (SRQ-A) and the Prosocial Self-Regulation Questionnaire (SRQ-P), both of which are intended for children, and the Treatment Self-Regulation Questionnaire (TSRQ), the Learning Self-Regulation Questionnaire (SRQ-L), the Exercise Self-Regulation Questionnaire (SRQ-E), the Religion Self-Regulation Questionnaire (SRQ-R), and the Friendship Self-Regulation Questionnaire (SRQ-F), which are all intended for adults.

You can find these questionnaires at this link.

Subjective Vitality Scale (VS)

The Subjective Vitality Scale, or VS, assesses the extent to which an individual feels alive, alert, and energetic—a vital aspect of wellbeing. There are two versions, one of which considers individual differences (vitality as a trait or characteristic), while the other measures vitality as a more transitory experience (vitality as a state).

The items are generally the same, only the timeframe differs (long-term and stable for the trait version vs. short-term and fluctuating for the state version). The original scale consisted of 7 items, but a shorter, 6-item version has proven to be even more sound than the original. You can learn more about the scale here.

Treatment Motivation Questionnaire (TMQ)

Finally, the TMQ is used to assess motivation for receiving treatment. It measures the strength of four types of motivation on treatment attendance and compliance behaviors: intrinsic motivation, identified regulation, introjected regulation, and external regulation. You can download the scale or learn more about it here.

If you’re interested in assessing more traits and behaviors, please see our piece on mindfulness scales and questionnaires.

Self-Determination Theory and Goals

Self-Determination Theory and Goals

SDT has a lot to say about goals and goal striving.

The theory proposes that not only is the content of our goals (i.e., what we strive for) important for our need satisfaction and wellbeing, the process of our goals (i.e., why we strive for them) is just as influential on our wellbeing.

The degree to which behavioral regulation of goal striving is autonomous (or self-directed) versus controlled is a significant predictor of wellbeing outcomes.

In other words, we are more satisfied and successful when we can pursue goals in “our own way” rather than according to a strict, external system of regulation. Even when pursuing extrinsic rewards like wealth or fame, we are more satisfied and self-actualized when we pursue them autonomously, for our own reasons and with our own methods (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Further research on SDT and goals has confirmed the connection between success and autonomy and supported the idea that success is also more likely when our goals are intrinsic and intended to satisfy our basic needs. Success in goal-striving is more likely when we are supported by empathetic and supportive people, rather than controlling or directive people (Koestner & Hope, 2014).

Self-Determination Theory in (Special) Education and Disability

It’s easy to see how SDT applies to education: students are more likely to learn and succeed in school when they are intrinsically motivated by their need for competence than when they are extrinsically motivated by teachers, parents, or the grading system.

SDT is doubly important for children in special education and those with disabilities. These students are often struggling with meeting their need for autonomy, as many decisions are made for them and they may not have the physical or intellectual ability to be truly autonomous.

Their disability may interfere with their need for competence, as it can hamper their efforts to master tasks and develop their knowledge. Finally, those with disabilities—physical, mental, or both—often find it difficult to connect with their peers. All of these extra struggles explain why it’s vital for students with disabilities to have a sense of self-determination.

Although they may not be able to satisfy their needs in the most straightforward or common ways, special education students can gain a sense of self-determination in other ways. For example, research has suggested that programs designed to improve the following skills and abilities can boost a student’s self-determination:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Decision-making
  3. Goal-setting
  4. Goal attainment
  5. Communication and relationship skills
  6. Ability to celebrate success and learn from mistakes
  7. Reflection on experiences (Field & Hoffman, 1994).

Enhancing the self-determination of students with disabilities has been shown to result in many positive outcomes, including a greater likelihood of gainful employment and a higher chance of living independently in the community (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997; Wehmeyer & Palmer, 2003).

Self-Determination Theory and Work Motivation

Self-Determination Theory and Work Motivation

SDT has also generated some important insights about work motivation.

While there are many theories about work motivation and engagement, SDT is unique in its focus on the “relative strength of autonomous versus controlled motivation, rather than on the total amount of motivation” (Gagné & Deci, 2005).

Although the overall amount of motivation is certainly a factor, it’s important not to lose sight of the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators; for example, SDT is correct in its assumption that extrinsic rewards are related to reduced intrinsic motivation.

There is also evidence for a positive relationship between a manager’s autonomy support and their employees’ work outcomes. A manager’s autonomy leads to greater levels of need satisfaction for their employees, which in turn boosts job satisfaction, performance evaluations, persistence, acceptance of organizational change, and psychological adjustment.

Finally, there is a link between managerial autonomy and subordinate autonomy, performance, and organizational commitment, as well as a link between transformational or visionary leadership and followers’ autonomous (vs. controlled) goals (Gagné & Deci, 2005).

Clearly, SDT has some vital applications in the workplace, namely:

  1. Extrinsic rewards should be considered with caution; too few can lead to a sense that employees are not appreciated or fairly compensated and recognized, but too many can inhibit intrinsic motivation.
  2. Managers should support their employees’ need for satisfaction, especially autonomy; this can lead to happier and more competent employees as well as better organizational outcomes.
  3. When managers are themselves high in autonomy, their subordinates are likely to be high in autonomy as well, leading to better performance and higher organizational commitment.
  4. Good leadership encourages employees to set their own, autonomously conceived and regulated goals, which are more motivating and more likely to end in success than goals assigned to them by management.

Self-Determination Theory in Social Work

SDT is a foundational idea in social work: the idea that every person has a right to determine his or her own direction and make her or her own decisions in life. Although every person has a right to self-determination, marginalized, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised people may struggle with finding their own self-determination (Furlong, 2003).

Hence, it is vital for those in the social work profession to incorporate the principle of self-determination into their work.

The National Association of Social Workers holds this principle as a central tenet to the profession:

“Social workers respect and promote the right of clients to self-determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals. Social workers may limit clients’ right to self-determination when, in the social workers’ professional judgment, clients’ actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others.”

Guidelines related to self-determination require a constant commitment to allow clients to make their own decisions, with ample support and information from the social worker rather than direction and control. It also requires that a social worker be aware of their own values and beliefs to ensure that they are not influencing clients towards a direction they did not choose for themselves (Fanning, 2015).

It’s a fine line to walk between looking out for the client’s best interests and allowing them to find their own way, which is one reason why social work is a challenging and demanding profession!

Self-Determination Theory in Sports

self-determination theory sports

SDT has also been fruitfully applied to research on sports participation and achievement.

Unsurprisingly, intrinsic motivation is a far more impactful driver of behavior in terms of goal attainment than extrinsic rewards, and in no context is this fact easier to see than in sports.

Research has shown that:

  • Those who are amotivated (not motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic factors) or motivated by external regulation and meeting external standards are more likely to drop out of sports teams or leagues.
  • Those who are amotivated or externally motivated are generally lower in need satisfaction, specifically the needs of relatedness and autonomy (Calvo, Cervelló, Jiménez, Iglesias, & Murcia, 2010).

Further, in work on SDT and general exercise or physical activity, findings have included:

  • Those who are autonomously motivated are more likely to adhere to exercise over time and enter the state of flow (a la Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow).
  • Those who are autonomously motivated have a higher perceived competence and psychological wellbeing.
  • Autonomous support from others encourages individuals’ autonomous motivation related to exercise.
  • An internal locus of causality (versus external) promotes greater success in exercise endeavors (Hagger, & Chatzisarantis, 2008).

As with self-determination in many other contexts, those with a high sense of it are more likely to stick with their goals and eventually achieve them.

Self-Determination Theory in Nursing and Healthcare

Likewise, self-determination theory can explain trends in nursing and healthcare. For example, intrinsic motivation and autonomy drive patient compliance with medical instructions, but motivation to comply with standards is also significant for patients (Kofi, 2017).

Another recent study provided support for the hypothesis that a health care practitioner’s autonomy support encourages patients to engage in healthier behavior, boosts their perceived competence in those behaviors, and can even enhance their sense of mindfulness in addition to helping them meet the three basic needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness; Martin, Byrd, Wooster, & Kulik, 2017).

Just as self-determination is vital for students in educational settings, it is vital for patients in healthcare settings. When patients feel they have little control over their lives and they are not supported in their decision-making by healthcare professionals, they will likely struggle to get their needs met and have worse health outcomes.

Healthcare professionals should keep these findings in mind when interacting with their patients if they have an interest in encouraging healthy behavior outside of the examination room.

How to Promote and Encourage Self-Determination Skills

It may be difficult to think about how self-determination skills can be taught or encouraged in others. This might feel like a trick question, since self-determination is, by definition, not directed by others!

However, there are some things you can do to help children and young adults develop self-determination.

Specifically, it can help to enhance and encourage their:

  • Self-awareness and self-knowledge
  • Goal-setting ability
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Decision-making skills
  • Ability to self-advocate
  • Ability to create action plans to achieve their goals
  • Self-regulation and self-management skills (Wehmeyer, 2002).

For some practical suggestions on how to go about encouraging self-determination, check out our Self-Determination Skills and Activities article.

Recommended Books

If you’re interested in learning more about SDT, you’re in luck! There are many resources out there that can help you become more familiar with this theory, including some great books. Some of the most popular and influential books on SDT include:

  • Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci (Amazon)
  • Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation by Edward L. Deci and Richard Flaste (Amazon)
  • Self-Determination Theory in the Clinic: Motivating Physical and Mental Health by Kennon M. Sheldon, Geoffrey Williams, and Thomas Joiner (Amazon)
  • Handbook of Self-Determination Research by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan (Amazon)
  • The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory by Marylene Gagne (Amazon)
  • Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan (Amazon link)
  • The Theory of Self-Determination by Fernando R. Tesón (Amazon)
  • Self-Determination Theory in Practice: How to Create an Optimally Supportive Health Care Environment by Jennifer G. La Guardia (Amazon)

11 Quotes on Self-Determination

If you’re the type of person that loves a good quote, we’ve got some great ones related to self-determination for you. See if any resonate with your personal view on self-determination.

“Stay focused and stay determined. Don’t look to anyone else to be your determination—have self-determination. It will take you very far.”

Justice Smith

“My idea of feminism is self-determination, and it’s very open-ended: every woman has the right to become herself, and do whatever she needs to do.”

Ani DiFranco

“America was born out of a desire for self-determination, a longing for the human dignity that only independence can bring.”

Maurice Saatchi

“Equality and self-determination should never be divided in the name of religious or ideological fervor.”

Rita Dove

“Know what you want and reach out eagerly for it.”

Lailah Gifty Akita

“We each possess the capacity for self-development. We also possess the capacity for self-destruction. The path that we chose to take—to pursue lightness or darkness—is the story that we take to our graves.”

Kilroy J. Oldster

“We are condemned to be free people, liberated people who must make life-defining decisions. Freedom requires choices and all choices entail value decisions.”

Kilroy J. Oldster

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

Nora Ephron

“Let every man be master of his time.”

William Shakespeare

“Self-determination is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.”

Woodrow Wilson

“Control your own destiny or someone else will.”

Jack Welch

A Take-Home Message

I hope you enjoyed this piece on Self-Determination Theory. It’s a great theory if you plan to have any career in the helping industry (e.g., counselor, coach, teacher, healthcare professional), and it’s also a great theory to understand regardless.

Although this theory has the impressive ability to predict outcomes of behavior based on motivations for that behavior (at least in part), the real value for the individual comes in the form of understanding the self better. When we know our core values and the intrinsic goals aligned with those values, we may be happier.

This method may even help people make better choices that satisfy their own needs rather than strive towards extrinsic goals.

If you take one thing away from the piece, let it be that you—like all people—are fully capable of making choices and finding your own way. As long as you pursue goals guided by your authentic values and desires, you have a great chance of success.

What do you think about self-determination theory? Do you think intrinsic motivation is always more effective than extrinsic motivation? Which do you find drives you more? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading!

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.


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  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.
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  • Kofi, O. (2017). Patient participatory behaviours in healthcare service delivery: Self-determination theory (SDT) perspective. Journal of Service Theory and Practice, 27, 453-474.
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  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY, US: Plenum Press.
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  • Wehmeyer, M. L. & Schwartz, M. (1997). Self-determination and positive adult outcomes: A follow-up study of youth with mental retardation or learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 63, 245-255.
  • Wehmeyer, M. L. & Palmer, S.B. (2003). Adult outcomes for students with cognitive disabilities three years after high school: The impact of self-determination. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 38, 131-144.


Courtney Ackerman, MA, is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is a researcher and evaluator of mental health programs for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, wellbeing in the workplace, and compassion.