What is the ‘Self-Determination Theory’?

Self Determination Theory

The Self-determination Theory (SDT) is a theory of human motivation based on our inherent tendency towards growth and is rooted in the knowledge that we are evolved, complex organisms.

Check out the earlier post on motivation for some background.

Humans have evolved to be curious and social beings, driven to realise our full potential through the development of psychological, social and behavioural skills. Motivation arises from the constant interaction between human nature and social context, and can be defined as either intrinsic or extrinsic:

  1. Intrinsically motivated behaviour results from performing activities that are inherently interesting and appealing
  2. Extrinsically motivated behaviour results from activities with perceived external consequences, for example, rewards or chastisement.

Surprisingly, the introduction of extrinsic factors i.e. payment or reward for an existing intrinsic behaviour can result in a change in motivational focus and a reduction in intrinsic motivation.

The Self Determination Theory proposes that intrinsic motivation leads to optimal performance and an improved perception of well-being. It mostly likely occurs when three basic psychological needs are met:

  • Relatedness – a sense of belonging, feeling significant to others and being connected to family, peers, and society.
  • Competence – feeling capable of operating effectively and seeking to learn from new life experiences
  • Autonomy – a desire to feel free to make decisions and choices within situations, and feel authentic, linked to improvements in performance, persistence and adherence

Life with a focus on intrinsic goals has a positive effect on well-being, whilst a focus on extrinsic goals may result in mental health issues and a lack of general wellness. Indeed, research has identified that individuals feeling more autonomous have improved relationships, better health-related behaviour, and are more likely to fulfill their potential. In contrast, an individual feeling controlled is more likely to be self-consciousness, feel under pressure, and seek external confirmation.

The SDT has been used in multiple areas, including education, sport, and business, and benefits from not only being a psychological model but also in its inclusion of evolutionary and biological, cultural and economic factors. The SDT is composed of 5 mini-theories corresponding to multiple aspects of psychological integration and motivation, rather than the traditional fields of psychology. The Causality Orientations Theory (COT) aims to measure lasting aspects of the character and predict meaningful outcomes rather than ‘needs’ and proposes three general causality orientations, autonomy, impersonal and controlled. Importantly COT describes orientations towards both one’s own motivations and that of the environment rather than needs. The autonomy orientation suggests acting with autonomy, sometimes in contrast to the controlling aspects of the environment, by orienting toward personal values and interests. The control orientation refers to the individual’s inclination toward behaviour that is regulated and controlled by social situations, and a potential to interpret situations as being controlling. The impersonal orientation highlights a tendency to feel a lack of control over outcomes, and promotes amotivation.

Measurement of Motivation

Measurement of individual differences in causality orientations may provide a useful insight into individuals ability to act autonomously in controlling or in motivating situations where autonomy is undermined.

The General Causality Orientation Scale (GCOS) was developed to measure enduring motivational orientations (Deci & Ryan, 1985) and consists of 12 brief situations and associated responses that describe typical, social and achievement-oriented situations, including job application and relationships with friends. Each item following the mini-story is attributable to one of the three orientations, either autonomy, impersonal or control. A number of studies have confirmed the effectiveness of the GCOS instrument in quantifying causality orientations (Koestner, Bernieri, & Zuckerman, 1992; Cooper, Lavaysse & Gard, 2015)


Cooper, S., Lavaysse, L. M., & Gard, D. E. (2015). Assessing motivation orientations in schizophrenia: Scale development and validation. Psychiatry Research, 225(1-2), 70-78. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2014.10.013

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000).  The What and Why of Goal Pursuits: Human needs and the Self-Determination of behaviour. Psychological Inquiry,11(4), 227-268.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology ,49(1), 14-23. 

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). The general causality orientations scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 19, 109-134.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1980). The Empirical Exploration of Intrinsic Motivational Processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Advances in Experimental Social Psychology,13, 39-80. 

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

Koestner, R., Bernieri, F., & Zuckerman, M. (1992). Self-Regulation and Consistency between Attitudes, Traits, and Behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(1),52-59. 


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