Self-Determination Theory

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Self-Determination Theory (SDT) represents a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. SDT articulates a meta-theory for framing motivational studies, a formal theory that defines intrinsic and varied extrinsic sources of motivation, and a description of the respective roles of intrinsic and types of extrinsic motivation in cognitive and social development and in individual differences.

People are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them.  Yet, just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values.  These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless they can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts.

Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.

Formally, SDT comprises six mini-theories, each of which was developed to explain a set of motivationally based phenomena that emerged from laboratory and field research. Each, therefore, addresses one facet of motivation or personality functioning.

1- Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET)concerns intrinsic motivation, motivation that is based on the satisfactions of behaving “for its own sake.”  Prototypes of intrinsic motivation are children’s exploration and play, but intrinsic motivation is a lifelong creative wellspring. CET specifically addresses the effects of social contexts on intrinsic motivation, or how factors such as rewards, interpersonal controls, and ego-involvements impact intrinsic motivation and interest.

CET highlights the critical roles played by competence and autonomy supports in fostering intrinsic motivation, which is critical in education, arts, sport, and many other domains.

2- Organismic Integration Theory (OIT),addresses the topic of extrinsic motivation. Broadly speaking, extrinsic motivation is behavior that is instrumental—that aims toward outcomes extrinsic to the behavior itself. Yet, there are distinct forms of instrumentality, which include external regulation, introjection, identification, and integration. These subtypes of extrinsic motivation are seen as falling along a continuum of internalization. The more internalized the extrinsic motivation, the more autonomous the person will be when enacting the behaviours.

3- Causality Orientations Theory (COT) describes individual differences in people’s tendencies to orient toward environments and regulate behavior in various ways. COT describes and assesses three types of causality orientations: the autonomy orientation in which persons act out of interest in and valuing of what is occurring; the control orientation in which the focus is on rewards, gains, and approval; and the impersonal or amotivated orientation characterized by anxiety concerning competence.

4- Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) elaborates the concept of evolved psychological needs and their relations to psychological health and well-being. BPNT argues that psychological well-being and optimal functioning is predicated on autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The theory argues that all three needs are essential and that if any is thwarted there will be distinct functional costs.

5- Goal Contents Theory (GCT) grows out of the distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic goals and their impact on motivation and wellness. Goals are seen as differentially affording basic need satisfactions and are thus differentially associated with well-being. Extrinsic goals such as financial success, appearance, and popularity/fame have been specifically contrasted with intrinsic goals such as community, close relationships, and personal growth, with the former more likely associated with lower wellness and greater ill-being.

6- Relationships Motivation Theory (RMT)Relatedness, which has to do with the development and maintenance of close personal relationships such as best friends and romantic partners as well as belonging to groups, is one of the three basic psychological needs. Relationships Motivation Theory (RMT) is concerned with these and other relationships, and posits that some amount of such interactions is not only desirable for most people but is in fact essential for their adjustment and well-being because the relationships provide satisfaction of the need for relatedness.

Indeed, the highest quality personal relationships are ones in which each partner supports the autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs of the other.

In addition to formal theory development, research has applied SDT in many domains including education, organizations, sport and physical activity, religion, health and medicine, parenting, virtual environments and media, close relationships, and psychotherapy. Across these domains research has looked at how controlling versus autonomy-supportive environments impact functioning and wellness, as well as performance and persistence.

By focusing on the fundamental psychological tendencies toward intrinsic motivation and integration, SDT occupies a unique position in psychology, as it addresses not only the central questions of why people do what they do, but also the costs and benefits of various ways of socially regulating or promoting behavior.

Recommended reading about Self-Determination Theory:

Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness