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Self-Determination Theory: Motivation Isn’t All Inside Us

From childhood, we’ve been told that motivation and determination are all up to us. We can control how much we want to achieve, how hard we push ourselves, and how successful we can become.

However, psychologists have discovered that there’s more to the story. 

Our environment and life experiences also significantly influence how motivated we feel to take on challenges or not. 

Our journey to success isn’t just an inner game but a shared adventure with the world around us.

What is the self-determination theory of motivation (SDT)

Self-determination theory, developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, states that individuals are driven by three innate psychological needs that, when fulfilled, promote self-determined motivation. They are competence, autonomy, and relatedness.​1​

When all three needs are met and aligned with one’s internal interests, there is a powerful synergy of the internal drive called intrinsic motivation. 

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to engage in activities for the inherent enjoyment of the motivated behavior rather than for external rewards. Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, is engaging in activities for external positive outcomes.

Two parents standing on either side of their daughter, holding her hand as she stands smiling above them on a tall block.


Feeling competent is the need to produce desired outcomes and experience mastery. 

For intrinsic motivation to take hold, we need to feel capable of accomplishing meaningful outcomes. If a task seems impossible to master, motivation falters. Conversely, breezing through work quickly can leave us unstimulated and unengaged. The key is striking the right balance and finding the sweet spot between impossible and too easy.

A challenge needs to stretch our abilities but remain attainable. Intrinsic motivation can be fostered by tasks that utilize our skills while expanding our capabilities.​2​


Autonomy means one has to experience their behavior as self-determined and not controlled by others. It involves a sense of independence, the capacity for self-direction, and the freedom to make choices that resonate with personal values and beliefs.

Cognitive evaluation theory (CET), a sub-theory within self-determination theory, suggests that competence alone cannot enhance intrinsic motivation unless a sense of autonomy accompanies it.

Things that can reduce human autonomy and intrinsic motivation include monetary rewards, threats, deadlines, directives, pressured evaluations, and imposed goals.

On the other hand, things that can enhance feelings of autonomy are choices, acknowledgment of feelings, and opportunities for self-direction.


Relatedness refers to a sense of belonging and connection to others.

The need for relatedness arises from human’s need for emotional bonds, connection with others, and meaningful engagement in social contexts.

It involves developing close, supportive relationships with others, feeling cared for and valued, and being part of social groups or communities.

Feeling connected with others is particularly important to enhance intrinsic motivation in children.​3​

Self-determination vs. operant conditioning

SDT evolved out of research on the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation.

Deci & Ryan found that if an individual engaged freely in an activity out of interest and was subsequently offered an external reward such as financial rewards or points for engaging in it, then their intrinsic motivation toward the activity declined.

This fascinating discovery has turned conventional psychological wisdom on its head. It caused quite a stir and sparked controversy because it contradicted the prevailing theory of operant conditioning at the time.​4​

Operant conditioning proposes that using a reward or punishment would supposedly encourage the associated behavior and not reduce the motivation to engage in it.

Human motivation vs. animal motivation

Operant conditioning remains influential in society. This behaviorism model is mainly based on laboratory experiments on animals, such as rats, dogs, and pigeons.

However, human motivation is more complex than animal motivation.

External rewards and punishments can change extrinsic motivation. However, humans cannot increase intrinsic motivation, which comes from the inherent enjoyment of activities. 

External factors often undermine internal motivation, and conditioning theories have not taken this type of motivation into account.​5​

Human behavior is affected by cognition, self-awareness, and the pursuit of meaning. Operant conditioning does not account for these deeper human drivers and internal factors. 

Still, using the external type of motivation persists out of habit and convenience.

Other types of motivation

While intrinsic motivation is essential, it’s not the only form of motivation. Much of what people do, significantly beyond early childhood, is not intrinsically motivated due to societal pressures and responsibilities.

Extrinsic motivation refers to performing an activity to attain a separate outcome. 

While this concept is often simplified and applied through operant conditioning, it doesn’t always yield the desired results, especially in complex human behaviors. 

For instance, parents of teenagers often experience this. They may take away their kids’ iPhones, iPads, or video games and even ground them, but still find it challenging to make their teenagers comply with their wishes. This is because human extrinsic motivation operates differently from that of animals.

SDT introduces a sub-theory, Organismic Integration Theory (OIT), to detail the different forms of external motivation and how they can be influenced.

Four kinds of extrinsic motivation lie along a continuum of relative autonomy. Autonomous motivation is associated with positive outcomes such as engagement, performance, and well-being.​6​

External regulation

This is the least autonomous form of extrinsic motivation. Such behaviors are performed to satisfy an external demand or reward contingency. Externally regulated behavior is usually experienced as controlled or alienated.

For example, punishment will be given as a negative outcome if a child fails an exam. The child changes his studying behavior in response to the threat of punishment. His behavior is externally regulated and extrinsically motivated.​7​

Introjected Regulation

Introjected regulation involves taking in regulation but not fully accepting it as one’s own. It’s a relatively controlled form of regulation in which behaviors are performed to avoid feelings of guilt or anxiety or to attain ego enhancements such as pride.

For instance, a student diligently prepares for her exams to avoid the embarrassment of receiving a low grade in front of her peers.​8​

Regulation through Identification

This is a more autonomous form of extrinsic motivation. Identification reflects a conscious valuing of a behavioral goal or regulation, such that the task is accepted as personally meaningful.

For example, students study hard when they identify with a specific goal, such as college.

Integrated Regulation

Integrated regulation is the most autonomous form of extrinsic motivation. Integration occurs when identified regulations are fully internalized to the self, evaluated, and aligned with one’s other values and needs.

For instance, when students are aware of the importance of education, they internalize it and feel more self-regulated when striving to get into college.​9​

How to motivate the intrinsically unmotivated

Leverage preferences, interests, sense of enjoyment, sense of challenge, and competencies where possible.

No child is intrinsically unmotivated to do everything. Everyone has activities which they like or derive joy from. Motivation can be nurtured by recognizing and working with a child’s competencies or preferences to problem-solve. 

Take the issue of resistance around an extra-curricular activity. If a competitive child who likes to be around peers is reluctant to continue private tennis lessons, enrolling them in a tennis club or team may improve their motivation. This might not work for a child uninterested in tennis, so appropriately adjusting parental expectations is vital.

If a child appears unmotivated or dissatisfied in all areas of their life, mental health professionals may be necessary to identify and treat underlying causes.

Use non-controlling language and behavior.

When parents are conditionally regarding, their children tend to introject their demands rather than healthily internalize them. Parental conditional regard is a technique used to control children by providing more attention and affection when children comply with parental demands and withdrawing them when children disappoint their parents.​10​

This popular strategy has harmful long-term effects on adolescents, such as amotivation in school, introjection, parental resentment, and emotional suppression.

On the other hand, parental autonomy supportive style, such as using informational rather than controlling speech, predicts interest-focused academic engagement in teenagers.​11​

Aim for integrated motivation.

Not all forms of extrinsic motivation are harmful. As outlined above, identification and integrated regulation are more autonomous forms of regulation. Providing meaningful justifications for tasks and goals, recognizing children’s perspectives and feelings, and offering choices where possible can nurture integrated motivation.​12​

Chores like cleaning may never become inherently enjoyable, but children who understand the benefits of good hygiene and being helpful may internalize a view that maintaining a clean home is beneficial and worth doing.

Respond warmly, even to mistakes

While having high standards for children can motivate them to master new skills and accomplish goals, children who appear unmotivated may be stressed about making mistakes. This perfectionist characteristic is connected to performance-avoidance, which can look a lot like a lack of motivation.​13​

Parents who maintain high standards while not criticizing their kids for making mistakes encourage their children to adapt and learn from mistakes rather than avoid even trying.

How to improve your self-determination

Deci & Ryan’s Self-determination theory offers a holistic approach to enhancing autonomy and living a self-determined life. Addressing one’s basic psychological needs for relatedness or connection, competency, and autonomy can be a great place to start.

Nurture positive relationships

Several studies show that feelings of acceptance and relatedness to significant others are linked with a greater sense of autonomy.​14​

Spending quality time with friends, family, and significant others can strengthen attachments with your loved ones. Finding a home in communities that feel meaningful to you, such as sports clubs, organized religion, or support groups, may ultimately enhance your self-determination.

Improve self-knowledge

Understanding yourself and your driving forces can lead to achieving authentic intrinsic goals in various aspects of life. For instance, exploring your talents and areas in need of improvement can help you choose an appropriately challenging hobby rather than an impossible venture. This can enhance a sense of competence and self-determination.

Pursue personal growth, connection, and community

Take time to reflect on your intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Determining whether these are driven by the pursuit of wealth, fame, and a good image may help you clarify whether they are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. People often compromise on their sense of relatedness or autonomy when pursuing money or popularity. Releasing yourself from external pressures can improve your self-determination.


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