Self-Determination Theory: How Does It Work?

In this article, we discuss different aspects of the self-determination theory. We talk about what the self-determination theory is, its implications on motivation, and ways how it can be used to improve your life.

If you are not familiar with this theory, this article is just for you! We will provide some scientific background information about the SDT, practical knowledge on how to apply its principles in everyday life, and the effects it has on happiness. Let’s start!

What is the Self-Determination Theory?

It is a psychological theory that proposes three basic psychological needs in order to have a healthy state of mind. This includes the need to feel autonomous, the need to feel competent at what you do, and the need to have a sense of relatedness to others.


Autonomy stands for self-direction. It is a feeling of independence and being in control over what you do. People prefer to have freedom over what they do and when they do it. People that have autonomy have control over their own behavior and goals.


Competence stands for feeling capable of doing what you want to do. It is the ability to master something, to do it successfully or efficiently. It happens when you feel like you know how to do something and you know your actions matter and have an impact as well. People have a need to feel capable of achieving goals or mastering skills. People are more inclined to take action when they believe they have the competence required for success.


Relatedness is defined as the desire to have a social connection. It’s also known as relatedness or affiliation. In order for people to feel happy with their lives, they must believe that they are a part of something greater than themselves. People want friends, family, and social circles on which they can trust and rely. People are more inclined to take action when they feel a sense of belonging and have acceptance of what they are doing.

Intrinsic motivation

Why self-determination is important

Individuals with less power over their lives are more prone to be dissatisfied. Self-determination affects physiological states as well as personality traits. Those who have higher levels of self-determination are more open-minded, persistent, and have cognitive flexibility. They also have lower levels of cortisol (an inflammatory response) when faced with stressors. Self-determination also affects mental health. Those who are more self-determined have lower levels of depression, anxiety, and guilt. Self-determination helps people solve problems because they focus on finding solutions instead of dwelling on the problem itself. People who are less self-determined tend to feel helpless when faced with difficult problems.

The Origins of Self-Determination Theory

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan were the first to publish research on this theory back in 1985. Since then, there have been thousands of articles written about it, along with books being published about ways people can apply it to their lives at work and at home.

Need for growth

Intrinsic motivation and self-determination

Intrinsic motivation, or performing activities for the intrinsic joy they provide, is an important aspect of self-determination theory. It is one of the main driving forces behind self-determined motivation. For example, an individual who works as a teacher and intrinsically enjoys helping others learn and grow, will feel the drive to teach. They will probably perform better than someone who only wants the paycheck.

Being self-determined

This means you think and act independently, as opposed to being manipulated or forced into certain behaviors. In other words, you are your own boss and are the instigator of your actions. Self-determination means you have a strong sense of yourself, a great understanding of what you want in life, and a certainty that what you are doing is right for you.

Being motivated

Self-determination is also linked to motivation. When individuals believe their activities will have a noticeable impact on the ultimate result, they are more eager to take action. As a result, they tend to be more productive.

Self-determination is one of the main reasons why individuals are willing to exert effort for activities that will benefit them. Of course, there are also other factors involved, such as whether an activity is enjoyable or not, but self-determination definitely plays an important role.

self determination theory

The need for growth within

Behavior is driven by a need for development. People usually want to develop themselves. They want to improve their capabilities and increase their potential. People who are fulfilled in life are more likely to have a higher need for growth.

Next to this, people are also driven by intrinsic rewards. For example, people are driven to increase their knowledge and mental health, feel better and feel stronger. This is also called intrinsic motivation. While someone can also be extrinsically motivated, intrinsic motivation is more powerful and long-lasting.

Growth makes you happy

Keeping that in mind, it comes as no surprise that research has shown a strong link between the need for personal growth and well-being. People who feel the need to grow and develop themselves tend to be more motivated and fulfilled than people who don’t experience this drive.

Maintain the growth of your life.

It’s vital to keep in mind that self-determination theory’s psychological development isn’t merely a matter of nature taking its course. People are naturally drawn to progress, but it must be maintained. In other words, when it comes to personal growth, nothing good comes without sustained effort. Human behavior is flexible, and if it goes in a good direction, you need to keep up its course, or else it will change direction.

Need for growth

Types of human motivation

Within the self-determination theory, there are two main types of human motivation. Namely, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are both necessary to allow people to feel satisfied with their activities. Self-determination theory focuses on how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are both important in everyday life.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation comes from the outside world. It is related to external rewards, such as money or praise. In other words, people need to have an outside stimulus that motivates them to do something they would not normally do.

Intrinsic motivation

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation comes from within. Intrinsic motivation is a deeper and more personal kind of motivation that drives people to do things they want to do or find rewarding. Oftentimes, this type of motivation can be very powerful. For example, someone who enjoys writing will continue doing it even without any sort of reward outside of their own personal satisfaction.


Intrinsic motivation is autonomous motivation

Autonomous motivation is self-determined and intrinsic. When people are autonomous, they feel like they are in control of what they do and why they do it. Autonomy comes from within the individual and gives them a strong sense of independence.

People who experience autonomous motivation tend to be more fulfilled by their activities. They want to explore and learn because it brings them satisfaction. They also tend to be more creative and persistent in their activities. When people have autonomous motivation, they feel like they are in control of their own lives.

Staying the same

While self-determination is about natural human motivation, it’s not always easy to maintain. People are inherently drawn to personal growth, but they are also driven by competing forces that want them to stay the same.

Social support

Social support is essential for personal growth and well-being

According to Ryan and Deci, the tendency to be proactive or passive is largely determined by the social connections people enjoy. People who are brought up by parents or peers that support personal growth and well-being will tend to be proactive. Instead, people who are brought up in a stressful environment, tend to have less control over their lives and have no social support. That is why they will often be more passive.

Support a mind with positive feedback

When you get honest positive feedback about your growth, you make progress and maintain your truly satisfying activities. If you don’t get the feedback you need, work on getting it! This isn’t to say that feedback alone is enough to keep yourself going—you should still do things because they’re rewarding, not just because someone told you they’re rewarding—but positive feedback can be a valuable source of motivation.

According to Deci, offering unexpected pleasant encouragement and feedback on a person’s performance in a task can boost their intrinsic motivation. People who receive positive feedback may feel more competent, which is one of the key needs for personal development.

Over justification effect

Overjustification effect

The overjustification effect is the idea that sometimes people will stop doing something fun because they have an extrinsic reward. If you have ever gotten paid to do a task or activity that you enjoyed doing for free, then you probably noticed yourself feeling not so excited about it once it became work.

Extrinsic motivators can undermine self-determination

Intrinsic motivations may be weakened by external motivators. Deci claims that providing people with external rewards for behavior that is intrinsically rewarding can reduce autonomy. In other words, if you do things because of external rewards, rather than doing them for the sake of those activities themselves, you will not be as intrinsically motivated as before to continue with those activities. People feel less in control of their own behavior and intrinsic motivation decreases as behaviors are increasingly controlled by external incentives.

Extrinsic motivation can be powerful

Extrinsic motivation can be highly effective if done correctly. For example, if you get an extrinsic reward to run, like praise or money, then your motivation is external.

In a sense, extrinsic motivation may be just as powerful as intrinsic motivation. But Deci and Ryan observe that it is not so much the type of motivation that is important, but rather how it’s applied. They argue that people can become more autonomous if they are rewarded for their behavior in ways that let them maintain their intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic rewards are effective in the short term

Deci and Ryan believe that extrinsic motivators can be quite effective in the short term. They say that rewards may actually improve performance when they are introduced shortly before or after a behavior is exhibited. However, once the reward is no longer offered, people will not be as likely to keep up with the activity.

Intrinsic motivation is a more powerful motivator in the long run

In the long term, Deci and Ryan argue that intrinsic motivation is more effective for increasing positive behavior. Perceived competence, social support, and autonomy are elements that can help to strengthen intrinsic motivation. But it is important not to offer rewards in ways that will undermine intrinsic motivation for doing the activity. The reason behind this is that intrinsic motivation appears to be more powerful in the long term.


Human motivation is a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have an effect on almost every activity a person does. Extrinsic motivators are necessary at times, especially when a person needs help to start or to keep going with something. For example, a person needs money to survive, and also basic physical and mental health like food, shelter, and praise.

The self-determination theory shows us that intrinsically motivated behavior is very important, but psychological health is also dependent on certain external rewards. Intrinsic motivations are necessary to make sure that the passion and energy for an activity continue over time. Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic rewards often work together to motivate someone. In this way, a human can have both the gain from self-determination, and the extrinsic rewards.

Behaviors tend to lie somewhere in the middle of the continuum. According to the self-determination theory, a person’s motivation for an activity often is a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

The percentage of intrinsic motivation exhibited by a person is unique to each behavior. However, it is important to maintain an appropriate balance between the two types of motivation in order to meet our basic needs.

Self-Determination Theory

A Word From Sublime People

Self-determination theory may help you to understand the reasons behind your actions. Self-determinism, or the belief that one has control over one’s life and can make decisions that influence one’s future, is critical for everyone’s well-being.

The way in which you act is not always clear-cut; instead, much of what we do reflects our own personal balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. We all show different levels of these two types of motivation depending on the behavior in question.

Understanding the motivations behind your actions can help you make more informed decisions in life. If you do something only for extrinsic rewards, you are less likely to find true happiness. But if you do something for only intrinsic reasons, you may not survive in the real world.

The ideal scenario is to do something because you have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. However, try not to focus on excessive external rewards and more on the intrinsic motivation you have for it. This way, you can enjoy success while also being able to sustain your self-determination.

Are you usually motivated by extrinsic rewards? Tell us about your experience!