Self-determination Theory of Motivation

The self-determination theory of motivation (SDT) was first proposed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in 1971 (Deci & Ryan, 1985). SDT proposes that individuals tend to be motivated by a need to grow and gain fulfillment. The first assumption of SDT is that individuals are activity-directed toward growth. While many theories propose that individuals are most often motivated extrinsically (i.e., external rewards such as money, prizes, and acclaim), SDT is focused on intrinsic motivation (i.e., need to gain knowledge or independence).

SDT proposes that in order to become self-determined, individuals need to feel the following:

  • Competence: Individuals need to gain mastery of tasks and control outcomes.
  • Relatedness: Individuals need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people.
  • Autonomy: Individuals need to feel in control of their own behaviors and goals.

Once individuals achieve self-determination, they are able to be intrinsically motivated. Deci’s (1972b) findings show that:

The general findings of this study and the Deci (1971) studies suggest that one who is interested in developing and enhancing intrinsic motivation in children, employees, students, etc., should not concentrate on external control systems such as monetary rewards, which are linked directly to performance, but, rather, he should concentrate on structuring situations that are intrinsically interesting and then be interpersonally supportive and rewarding toward the persons in the situation. While large payments can lead to increased performance due to feelings of inequity, these payments will, however, be making the people dependent on the money, thereby decreasing their intrinsic motivation. (pp. 119, 120)

In summary, Deci’s and Ryan’s SDT (2002) proposes that three basic psychological needs motivate individuals. SDT states that these needs are said to be universal, innate, and psychological and include the need for (1) competence; (2) autonomy; and (3) psychological relatedness.

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