In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Self-Determination Theory

  • Introduction
  • Self-Determination Theory Overview
  • Cognitive Evaluation Theory
  • Organismic Integration Theory
  • Causality Orientations Theory
  • Goal Content Theory
  • Relationships Motivation Theory

Psychology Self-Determination Theory
Michael L. Wehmeyer, Karrie A. Shogren, Jessica Toste
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0218


Self-determination theory (SDT) is a prominent approach to understanding human motivation. Unlike most motivation theories, SDT differentiates motivation into autonomous and controlled types. SDT is a meta-theory that details the origins and outcomes of human agentic action. The theory is based on organismic paradigms, which assume humans are active organisms, motivated to assimilate and integrate knowledge and capacities in both their physical and social environments. SDT incorporates the fundamental concepts of motivation and basic psychological needs into six mini-theories, each addressing different problems of motivation theory. Together, these mini-theories explain the operations of SDT in a complex social world. The mini-theories are Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET), Organismic Integration Theory (OIT), Causality Orientations Theory (COT), Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT), Goal Content Theory (GCT), and Relationships Motivation Theory (RMT). These mini-theories each explain a set of observed motivation phenomena in various domains of functioning. SDT, as an organismic meta-theory, views humans as proactive beings with the propensity to assimilate and integrate both their internal states and their mastery and understanding of the social and environmental circumstances they encounter. SDT frames optimal human development as the interaction between growth-striving humans and their social environment in which basic psychological needs are either supported or thwarted. According to SDT, the critical social environment supports are described in terms of three specific basic psychological needs: the needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. In social environments that support the satisfaction of these needs, optimal growth and positive development are expected. Satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs is a foundational concept to SDT and considered essential for maintaining intrinsic motivation and the self-regulation of extrinsic motivations. SDT has been applied to study a diverse array of issues such as health behavior initiation and maintenance, academics and school adjustment, psychological well-being, and sport and physical activity. Together with theories pertaining to human agency, SDT has been used to conceptualize the development of self-determination and causal action.

Self-Determination Theory Overview

Deci and Ryan 2002 articulates how self-determination theory (SDT) is a motivational meta-theory that emerged from research on the effects of external rewards on intrinsic motivation. SDT is based on foundational work by Angyal 1972, and early work in personality psychology, which framed an organismic approach to understanding human behavior and on de Charms 1968 theory of personal causation as a primary motivational influence. Deci and Ryan 2012 and Ryan and Deci 2017 (the latter cited under Relationships Motivation Theory), describe that this original research was ultimately conceptualized as one of six mini-theories that comprise SDT, cognitive evaluation theory (CET). Introduced in the mid-1980s by Deci and Ryan 1985, CET posits that autonomy-supportive social contexts enhance intrinsic motivation, while controlling social environments, often characterized by external rewards, thwart or reduce intrinsic motivation and action compelled by such motivation. This hypothesis was tested in Deci, et al. 1999 in a comprehensive meta-analytic review of the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. SDT incorporates an organismic dialectical approach, and assumes that people are active organisms who interact with their environment to master challenges and opportunities and to form an integrated sense of self. SDT posits that such interactions require ongoing social nutriments and supports, and that the social context can either support or serve as a barrier to engagement and, thus, psychological growth, well-being, and the fulfillment of basic psychological needs. Deci and Ryan 2002 notes that the fulfillment of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness support people to develop and function effectively. The need for relatedness is associated with social belonging: it is a satisfaction derived from a sense of connectedness with others; to care and be cared for by others. The need for competence reflects humans’ desire to effectively master their environment and experience a sense of competence in that environment. The need for autonomy is satisfied when an individual experiences choice and volition in their action, and perceives themselves to be the origin of their actions. Autonomous actions are those that are self-endorsed, and congruent with one’s values and interest. As per Deci and Ryan 2000, SDT posits that different regulatory processes underlying goal pursuits are differentially associated with needs satisfaction and well-being and that different goal contents are, similarly, associated with differential outcomes pertaining to needs satisfaction (Goal Content Theory). As detailed throughout this bibliography, and as Deci and Ryan 2008 canvasses, SDT has been shown to have applicability across multiple life domains and, as Wehmeyer, et al. 2017 describes, has been used to describe the development of causal action and self-determination.

  • Angyal, A. 1972. Foundations for a science of personality. New York: Viking.

    Originally published in 1941 and updated in 1972, Angyal proposed that an essential feature of a living organism was its autonomy, where autonomous meant self-governing or governed from inside. Angyal argued that the science of personality is, in essence, the study of two essential determinants to human behavior, autonomous-determinism (or self-determination) and heteronomous-determinism. This distinction was central to early SDT work in CET.

  • de Charms, R. 1968. Personal causation: The internal affective determinants of behavior. New York: Academic Press.

    De Charms’s classic text on personal causation, defined as a primary motivational propensity to be effective in producing changes in the environment, or doing something intentionally to produce a change, was a primary influence for SDT and, essentially, all theories of intrinsic motivation and organismic, causal action. De Charms’s personal causation theory built on theory by Fritz Heider.

  • Deci, E. L., R. Koestner, and R. M. Ryan. 1999. A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin 125:627–668.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.125.6.627

    This article reports a meta-analysis of 128 studies examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. The analysis concluded that all forms of contingent rewards reduced or undermined intrinsic motivation as evidenced by free choice situations. Several forms of extrinsic rewards also reduced self-reported interest in tasks. The article is an important summary of the research that resulted in CET.

  • Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan. 1985. Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4899-2271-7

    This text provides a synthesis of the initial work that, eventually, became SDT, introducing what became the first of the mini-theories, CET, and discussing the research on factors that promote and inhibit intrinsic motivation.

  • Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan. 2000. The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry 11:227–268.

    DOI: 10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_01

    This article discusses the SDT conceptualization of needs, compared to the use of the needs construct in other theories, and discusses the self-regulatory function of goal-oriented behavior in need satisfaction.

  • Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan. 2002. Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: Univ. of Rochester Press.

    Published as the outcome of an international conference held on SDT in 2000, this text provides the first comprehensive look at SDT in its current meta-theory form. Chapters in the text provide an overview of the theory, examine theoretical issues, and examine SDT in life domains. A number of chapters examine the intersection between SDT and related or overlapping theoretical frameworks. The volume concludes with reflections and future directions.

  • Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan. 2008. Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology 49:182–185.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0012801

    A relatively recent overview of SDT by the co-founders of the macro-theory, this article provides a succinct overview of SDT and its applicability within multiple domains.

  • Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan. 2012. Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In Oxford handbook of human motivation. Edited by R. M. Ryan, 85–107. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This chapter overviews empirical support for the SDT proposition that all people have fundamental psychological needs to be competent, autonomous, and related to others and that satisfaction of these basic needs facilitates people’s autonomous motivation (i.e., acting with a sense of full endorsement and volition). The chapter focuses on proximal (e.g., a family or workgroup) or distal (e.g., a cultural value or economic system) social contexts that affect need satisfaction.

  • Wehmeyer, M. L., K. A. Shogren, T. D. Little, and S. Lopez. 2017. Development of self-determination through the life-course. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-024-1042-6

    This text places SDT within the context of the development of causal action, providing a comprehensive examination of how causal action is motivated by individuals’ quest to fulfill basic psychological needs proposed by SDT, resulting in causal action and enhanced self-determination.

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