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Self Determination Theory Of Motivation: Understanding Motivation Through Needs And Intrinsic Drives

Self Determination Theory Of Motivation: Understanding Motivation Through Needs And Intrinsic Drives

Updated on May 27, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Self Determination Theory - Definition, Examples and How Does It Work

Key Takeaways

  • Self determination theory (SDT) is a theory of human motivation By Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.
  • SDT looks at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
  • SDT highlights the influence of internal factors and self determined behavior on our motivation levels.
  • Our needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness largely influence our self determined behaviors.

Self determination theory (SDT), as the name suggests, is a theory of human motivation and gives us an insightful look at how humans operate and motivate themselves through both intrinsic and extrinsic motives. 

Through this text, you will understand internal and external factors that drive human action, the roots of human motivation, and the personal growth that results from such action.

It is a theory that is relevant even three decades after it was originally published. 

Motivation has been an important concept to study in all areas of psychology, human behaviors, health and medicine, organizational development, and also in the realm of social sciences.

Read on to understand why self determination theory holds so much importance in all the literature concerning motivation and why motivation in itself is such an important concept to study. 

Self Determination Theory Infographic

Self Determination Theory Of Motivation Understanding Motivation Through Needs And Intrinsic Drives
Self Determination Theory Of Motivation Understanding Motivation Through Needs And Intrinsic Drives

What Is Self Determination 

Self determination is the control an individual enjoys over his or her life. This means that the individual’s actions, decisions and motives are controlled by no one other than the individual himself. 

We often hear the words self determination. We may hear it in different contexts ranging from selecting a packet of chips to making important career decisions. Self determination mainly means having control over our life. 

This internal process is more complex than ‘doing whatever we want.’ Self determination means having the ability to decide for ourselves, having the right information to make such decisions, and understanding the reasoning behind and consequences of our decisions. 

Self-determination is an important concept within the research on motivation and self determination because it examines how a human is happy when he is internally motivated to do something.

Self determination also looks at what constitutes internal motives and how they matter when making any decision that impacts the individual’s life.

It is easy to assume that we do everything simply because we want to; however, the reality is not that simple

Self determination as a concept, mainly in the light of the self determination theory, proves that the reason behind our actions may sometimes be intrinsic and for our own needs, but sometimes may also be for the benefit of external factors, or non self-determined. 

Hence, self determination is understood as the following. 

1. Intrinsic process

Self determination comes from an individual’s intrinsic motives. It is not heavily influenced by outside factors like rewards or punishment.

Intrinsic means are internal to us. This indicates that self determination comes out of our own needs. When we exercise our self determination in our behavior, it satisfies our internal needs. This is further explained in the following sections.  

2. Element of control 

Self determination is a process through which an individual is able to exercise control over his or her own life. For example, sticking to a diet requires high levels of self determination. 

Acts or decisions based on self determination or self determined behavior have a larger element of control. Non self determined behavior has a lower level of control because they are done or performed for others. 

3. Form of motivation 

Most importantly, the self determination theory looks at the concept of self determination as a form of motivation. It is especially regarded as a form of motivation that makes an individual intrinsically happy. 

There are multiple theories of motivation because it has been looked at by different social scientists in different ways. Deci and Ryan looked at self determination in their theories because they found that when motivation was internal, the individual was happiest. 

In the modern world, we need more and more people that are intrinsically motivated to do their job, daily activities, etc.

Understanding motivation through self determination helps us navigate more realistic job designs and interventions.

Interventions, especially in the context of mental health and/or addiction, are an important tool to improve an individual’s condition. Self determination and motivation play a huge role in most interventions. 

4. Self determined behavior 

Based on the concept of self determination, behaviors are understood as self determined or non self determined. 

Self determined behavior is when a person acts out of a need to fulfill his own basic need. For example, going dancing because that person loves to dance is self determined behavior from that person. 

5. Non self determined behavior 

Based on the same logic, acting out of a need to fulfill a duty or external requirement is non self determined behavior. For example, going to a work event because it is an official requirement. 

Non self determined behavior does not mean that the individual is entirely forced to do something.

Taking the previous example, it is possible that the individual may even personally want to go to the event; however, he is mainly doing it because he must. 

What Is Self Determination Theory 

Self determination theory, put forth by Edward L Deci and Richard Ryan, suggests that people have three universal psychological needs.

When people act to fulfill those needs, it is recognized as intrinsic motivation; which is found to be a happier form of motivation. 

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation both are in play in human behavior. Extrinsic motivation is when people do something because they are externally motivated to do so.

For example, working long hours for better pay. 

Extrinsic motivation is often used by employers and other authority figures as it gives the organization structure and leaves less room for absence or mistakes. Extrinsic motivation relies more on reward and punishment. 

Intrinsic motivation on the other hand relies on the fulfillment of inner psychological needs. These needs were assumed to be universal as every person feels them throughout their life. 

Three Psychological Needs

The three universal psychological needs are – autonomy, competence and relatedness. [BOLD] 

1. Autonomy 

The need for autonomy is when you feel like you have complete control over the task you are doing. This means that the task should truly feel like your own when you are performing or delivering it. 

Take for example a school project. It is often found that students love doing arts, crafts or science projects where they have the freedom to do whatever they want. This freedom makes them truly own their own work. 

When people have autonomy over their actions, they tend to perform better.

Hence, the motivation that is born out of a need to be autonomous will make the individual perform better or sustain the motivation for a longer time period. 

Motivation is also something that does not stay stable. It is dynamic in nature, which means sometimes it is heightened and occasionally it is also low.

The need for autonomy will help people feel more self determined, which will likely increase motivation levels. 

2. Competence 

Competence is the need to feel like you are capable of doing the job assigned to you. This means that people need to feel like they have mastered a skill before they feel motivated to do it. 

Taking another example from our childhood; we feel much more motivated to play a sport when we have mastered the sport.

This means that while learning may be fun, we learn and are motivated to keep going when we reach a high level of skill. 

This does not mean that people are not motivated to do jobs that they haven’t mastered yet. It merely means that once you are skilled at something, and are able to perform a task well, you feel self-determined to go on. 

This motivation is sustained mainly because your need to feel competent is being fulfilled. This means you are motivated to keep up the good streak, so you can eventually find success within the task or field or work. 

3. Relatedness 

Relatedness or connectedness means that there is a need within us to feel connected to the work we are doing.

When the ideals of the job match the personal ideals of the individual, his or her need for relatedness is being fulfilled.

Relatedness can be better explained through the example of meaningful work. If you feel that what you are doing matters, or is important, you may feel more intrinsically motivated to do that task. 

This happens because the need for relatedness, a universal need that is being felt intensely by newer generations, is being fulfilled, which leads to more self determined behavior, which in this case means higher levels of motivation. 

The need for relatedness can also be looked at as a need to belong or feel attached to your work.

For example, employers constantly try to give the message that the organization is like a family; this fulfills the needs for belonging and attachment. 

The Assumptions of Self Determination Theory 

The above section talks about the three universal psychological needs highlighted by Deci and Ryan in the self determination theory. The theory also mainly functions based on two key assumptions.

1. Personal growth is a determinant of human behavior

We all encourage growth in the people and things we see around us. Personal growth and the facilitation of higher-order skills is part of our psychological development as well. 

Hence, people act in ways that prove to themselves and those around them that they are growing.

This growth is a sign of progress that is crucial for social acceptance and the pursuit of goals in life outside of high school. 

The self determination theory assumes that most motivated behavior comes from a sense of wanting to achieve personal growth. For example, people learn skills like cooking to survive independently in the world. 

Similarly, people play sports even though there is no mandate to do so because it gives them the satisfaction of growth.

Sport and exercise require high levels of motivation, but people still engage in them, because it gives them a chance to show their growth. 

2. Autonomy is an important factor in motivation 

Humans are obviously motivated by external rewards. Determination of behavior can be done through the facilitation of intrinsic motivation as well as extrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation facilitates behavior like bringing your boss coffee to get in their good books. 

Extrinsic motivation is thus based on the fact that there are clear external rewards for each behavior and acting as per requirements will get the individual the good rewards. 

However, intrinsic motivation works on the principle that people are particularly motivated to work on something when their reward for it is internal. The internal reward here is the fulfillment of the need for autonomy. 

When given complete control over something, an individual safely assumes some kind of ownership towards it.

Not only does that increase the individual’s accountability, it also increases their motivation to do a good job, as it reflects entirely on them. 

The self determination theory assumes that people’s need to truly have control over their work drives their self determined behavior. The theory and facilitation of the need for autonomy thus motivate people to act in pursuit of their goals. 

Autonomous regulation also increases motivation because the task at any level is not ruined by any external force.

When a person himself gets to decide the game, the level, the reward, and the progress, it is assumed he truly performs with his best efforts. 

In Absence Of The Three Needs 

Thus we realize that the self determination theory largely relies on humans possessing these three main psychological needs, i.e. autonomy, competence and relatedness. 

However, it is possible that sometimes an individual does not particularly feel these needs. In such cases, where a person is operating in absence of these needs, social behaviors and motivations alter a bit. 

Here, because the motivation is not entirely intrinsic or the behavior self determined, an individual may feel the need to separate himself from the task. This means that the person will not be inclined to take credit for the success or the failure of the task. 

In case of errors, when the motivation of the task is not internal or self determined, it becomes easy to blame external forces.

For example, if a person is doing a task in the absence of the needs, he may blame the quality of rewards for his bad performance. 

Often, when a person is not attached to their work, they go through something like a psychological withdrawal from their work. This means that they are determined to not feel anything for the job they do; neither positive nor negative emotions. 

This withdrawal not only reduces the quality of efforts but also the motivation to do the job.

For example, if you are working on something that you absolutely do not connect with, you withdraw from the task at hand so much that you refuse to associate any feelings with it. 

Importance Of Self Determination In Life 

Self determination helps people identify their values, skills, and long-term goals. 

For this section, let us keep aside the theory of self determination. Let us explore the self determination skills and how they eventually help us in our lives. 

Self Determination, other than being a huge influence in our motivation, also helps us feel more aware of our sense of self.

We only get a comprehensive sense of ourselves when we know what is in our control, what we connect with, and what we believe in. 

Self determination allows us to explore our own abilities. We all have a set of skills that we acquire from a young age. However, the older we get, we start picking the skills that we want to get better at or gain mastery of. 

Self determination helps us pick which are these skills that we want to be competent at.

Making these decisions ourselves also allows us to feel like we have control over our life. For example, self determination helps an artist identify that art is his forte.

Self determination also makes individuals explore their internal values and drives. While we all have the need for growth within us, it is our self-determination that helps us identify the values and beliefs that we want to grow up with. 

Only a self-aware individual will be able to identify his skills, his long-term goals, his value systems, and the set of people who share the same value systems.

Self determination thus is almost a form of self-awareness, which is considered a good quality in adults. 

Self Determination Theory of Motivation

Self determination theory is a macroscopic theory of human motivation. It explores both intrinsic drives and societal factors; the self determined behaviors of individuals and the effect of all on human motivation and psychological wellness. 

The self determination theory of motivation is one of the most prominent theories of human motivation. The reason for this is that it just doesn’t look at how much motivation is involved in an action or behavior. 

The self determination theory also looks at the different types of motivation and further goes on to explain which kind of motivation is more conducive to human happiness and personal growth

Ryan and Deci’s theory looks at extrinsic and intrinsic drivers of motivation and explains their differential effects on human motivation. It looks at intrinsic motivation in the presence of varied environmental or social conditions.  

These environmental factors can both enhance or reduce motivation. While some may assume that intrinsic motivation is entirely internal, this theory sheds light on how environmental factors do have an effect on intrinsic drives. 

Moreover, the effect is such that these factors influence whether or not the internal needs of an individual are fulfilled. This need fulfillment is essential for self determined behavior, which helps increase and sustain motivation levels. 

For example, consider the needs for connectedness or relatedness. These internal needs require individual attachment to the goal in question.

If the need for connectedness is fulfilled, self determined behavior increases, which makes the person feel motivated. 

However, consider an office that is too formal. The employees are not able to fulfill their need for relatedness because the environment is too formal for them to develop any sort of attachment to their work.  

When this need is not fulfilled, an individual employee’s behavior is less self determined and more out of compulsion; which reduces his motivation towards the job.

He may still do the job, but his lack of intrinsic motivation results in less happiness associated with the job. 

Our psychological health is examined with a lot of factors, one of them being our motivation levels towards our roles and jobs in life. The self determination theory thus really helps us understand where we stand in that regard. 

This is because the studies done by Deci and Ryan showed the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and how the first one is an indication of being internally happier. This distinction also helps us look at the strength of our motivation. 

Through the self determination theory, basic psychological functions such as autonomous motivation or the sense of control over one’s life, the internal drive to grow and succeed and the pursuit of long-term needs such as relatedness are all studied together. 

SDT also understands the use of motivation in questions of psychological inquiry, as well as a performance at work and in school.

The real-life applications of this theory of motivation brings together culture, social environment, organizational health and personal drives.

Since the self determination theory looks at such large scale and universal experiences and needs, in the context of societal factors as well, it is regarded as an excellent macroscopic theory of human motivation. 

Self Determination Theory v/s Other Theories Of Motivation

This theory of self determination is a combination of a macroscopic understanding, universal psychological needs of motivation and intrinsic drives, compared to other theories which focus on rewards and outcomes. 

Since we have spoken about other theories of motivation, this section will briefly look at some other theories and understand how the self-determined theory is different from those. 

Other theories of motivation, given by social scientists look at concepts such as arousal, incentives, drives, etc.

Arousal theory suggests that when we are low on energy or happiness, we are motivated to act in ways that will give us an energy boost. 

The incentive theory looks at rewards and punishment. It explores high rewards as a particular driver of motivation, as well as punishment, where the motivation comes from a need to avoid the negative outcome. 

These theories, thus, place greater importance on the outcome of motivation being a huge influence in the amount of motivation. They are simplistic theories, which focus on the amount of motivation. 

The drive theory looks at internal balances as the main component in human motivation. It assumes that people work towards an act or behave in ways that reduce the tension in their bodies. Thus, their motivation comes from a need to have an internal balance. 

In comparison to these theories, the macro theory of motivation which is the self determination theory focuses on universal intrinsic needs and assumptions. It explains motivation as something that comes from within a person. 

Self determination theory, unlike these other theories, explains that merely the outcome or the rewards cannot be the reason for goal-directed behavior.

This behavior, which is how we measure motivation, is the result of more complex internal processes. 

Autonomous regulation, fulfillment of psychological needs, personal wellbeing and development as well as environmental factors that enhance the above mentioned together become a wholesome influence; leading to self determined behavior and motivation. 

Thus, we can see the main difference between the self determination theory and other theories of motivation is the focus on a more comprehensive sense of self and behavior as well as a more macro understanding in SDT, as opposed to others. 

How Does The Theory Work In Reality 

While the theory works in a way that self determined behavior makes people feel intrinsically motivated to pursue a goal; there is a doubt about how it works in reality. 

This is also a fair question to ask, as most schools, education institutes, industries and organizations seem to focus on external rewards to drive employee behavior. However, this is merely how it seems. 

In reality, Deci and Ryan suggest that offering rewards counterproductively reduces intrinsic motivation, as the person does not feel any autonomy towards the project.

This leads to people being less self determined to give the project their best. 

Hence, even if a person feels great about doing the work, their particular intrinsic motivation for it reduces, because they believe that their work, in the end, is not for them or their own; it’s for someone else. 

For example, how organizations deal with this is through offering positive feedback as well. As Deci also suggests, positive feedback, especially when the person does not expect it, makes the person feel more intrinsically motivated. 

This is simply because the positive feedback makes the person believe they have a certain competence over their task that has impressed others.

This satisfies the person’s need for individual growth, leading to a higher level of motivation than before. 

Thus, the self determination theory, in reality, is used to make people feel intrinsically motivated for tasks that are anyway required of them to do. Intrinsic motivation merely drives them to do a better job than what they would do without any such motivation. 

The following section examines more such examples of how self determination theory works in real life. 

Self Determination Theory Examples 

This section explores the real-life examples of self determination theory, in various settings like school, work, healthcare, etc. 

1. School 

Studies were done on school and college-going students have time and again proved that when students fulfill their need for autonomy, it leads to better life outcomes in life outside school as well. 

People often underestimate the amount of decision-making involved in a student’s life. Aside from having subjects they like more than others, every year students are required to make major career-altering decisions. 

For example, taking up sports in school leads to increased awareness and penchant towards sports later, which helps a person stay physically fit. This same is not true for all students who have a mandatory sports class. 

The autonomy enjoyed while making the decision to take sports helps the person feel more motivated to practice, buy workout gear, watch sports matches and even make it a part of their daily life. 

The same is true for students with a disability, like a learning disability. Positive feedback for tasks they have accomplished makes them feel more competent. Since their competence is often questioned otherwise, fulfilling this need positively influences them.

Problem-solving is a great life skill that begins from school years. Making students believe that what they are learning is essential for their own personal growth; something that will help them navigate real-life problems makes them more motivated to learn.

This is essentially based on the assumption that all humans want to personally thrive and grow.

Hence, linking learning to their need for personal growth increases intrinsic motivation, and makes them more confident in the skills they develop. 

Educational settings can thus even promote more self-determined learning behavior in students by using non-controlling language, giving them more autonomy, making them more confident by using positive feedback, and linking real-life values to schoolwork. 

 2. Work

Organizational goals and health are of extreme importance to all employers. Employers are constantly looking to hire employees who are highly motivated so that the organization can benefit from the work they put in. 

These workplaces also offer attractive salaries and compensation packages to employees, which is why employees follow the rules like coming to work on time, working for a certain number of hours, and even submitting their work on time. 

However, according to the self determination theory, the reward and salary are extrinsic motivators. They are not personal to the employees, and hence the behaviors that result from it are things that are expected from the employees only. 

For an employee to go above and beyond the requirements, and to constantly perform to the best of their ability, there must be self-determined behavior at the root of it. A self determined individual does his job because he feels internally motivated to do so. 

This intrinsically motivated state helps employers and employees work towards a common goal.

A self-determined individual may even treat the company target as his personal target because he feels connected with the values of the company. 

Employers are thus dedicated to increasing intrinsic motivation within their employees. Human resources departments, seminars etc. are held to understand employees’ psychological states and help them reach higher levels of motivation. 

Based on the needs and assumptions of the self determination theory, more self determined behavior can be encouraged by doing the following. 

  • Making employees take an active role in the organisation. 

For example, there can be a company policy where for certain things, employees get to make the decisions. It can range from smaller things like choosing the venue for company events to larger roles like deciding their own deadlines. 

  • Offer meaningful feedback 

Employees may earn the salary they deserve, but they may truly feel connected to the organization if they believe the organization cares about them. Giving meaningful feedback is a way of saying that their work is being noticed by people. 

Meaningful feedback, especially if it is positive, may even help employees feel more competent in their skills and they may feel internally motivated to take up even more responsibilities. 

  • Avoiding over compensation 

Giving an employee too many rewards that are external, or offering a very high rate for overtime, makes people equate their work with only the salary they earn. This means that they may do their duties, but may not be particularly motivated to do so.

Internal motivation is not born out of a need to earn rewards. Rewards will in fact make employees feel less autonomy towards their work. To maintain high motivation levels, employees must feel like they are doing the work mainly because they want to. 

3. Competition 

Self determination theory focuses on motivation driving behavior towards the pursuit of a goal. This means that athletes or people in competitive settings require more self determined behavior to succeed in their field. 

Self determination theory suggests that when people associate a goal with their personal goal, they are more likely to perform better.

Athletes are said to be self-determined because they are mainly working towards an entirely personal goal. 

Most competitive settings, in fact, foster a feeling of competence and relatedness. The goals of beating other competitors are largely personal, as is the need to be competent at their task. 

Since these needs are fulfilled just because of the nature of a competitive setting, self determined behavior is easily enhanced, leading to highly motivated individuals. 

4. Social Work  

Self determination theory also works in social work settings, particularly when a social worker is trying to foster more self determined or motivated behavior in their clients. 

Decision-making is an important part of our lives. Every day we make decisions like what we want to wear, what we want to eat, whether or not we want to go to work, etc. These decisions make us feel in control of our lives. 

For people who need the help of social workers, which are marginalized people or people that really need external help for basic needs; the element of control they feel in their life is anyway restricted. 

Hence, for them to feel motivated towards their work, or for them to feel a sense of direction or purpose in their life again, social workers have to first foster a feeling of control within them, which will foster more self determined behavior.

Social workers can do this by encouraging decision-making within them. Social workers themselves have to ensure that their values don’t influence their clients and that they let their clients decide their own direction. 

For people with disabilities as well, fostering a sense of decision-making allows people to feel like they have autonomy over their lives, which may have initially been denied to them.

This sense of autonomy may make them feel motivated to do more. 

Social workers can encourage this by increasing their roles in daily tasks, giving them some responsibilities, and even encouraging more problem solving from their own end. It is essentially all the components of SDT being employed together. 

5. Healthcare

Healthcare workers’ autonomy support is said to truly encourage patients towards healthier behavior patterns.

The reason for this is simply making patients feel like they are in good control of their health actually makes them take better care of it.

Doctors and nurses often struggle with patients not complying with their orders or advice. This is not healthy for patients, but by disobeying they feel more in control. Hence, the goal is to make patients feel internally motivated to comply. 

Self determination skills work in a way that the more autonomy one has over a decision, the more invested they are in reaching the desired goal.

Hence, allowing patients to take an active role in their treatment plan motivates them to follow the doctor’s advice. 

Doctors and nurses may even use the assumptions of SDT in a way that patients feel in charge of their own health to the point that they put more effort into their treatment than was strictly asked of them, such as quitting unhealthy foods entirely. 

These examples, from all settings, prove that self determination theory is based on ample empirical evidence. This evidence stands true even today, in most social science studies and settings. 

Self Determination Theory Psychology 

To understand the relevance of self determination theory in psychology, let us first understand who exactly is a self determined person. 

This is an individual who:- 

  • Believes he/she controls their own life
  • Holds themselves accountable for their own behavior 
  • Is internally motivated to perform 
  • Acts based on an internal model of values and beliefs rather than an external model of rewards or outcomes 

Take for example someone who is in charge of arranging a large party. If this is a self-motivated person, who is throwing a party because she wants to, she will give herself credit if the party is a huge success. 

She will also take the blame if the party is not organized well, and will take steps to fix the errors herself. If this was not a self-motivated person, she may have blamed the budget, or the venue or even the guests if things went wrong. 

Similarly, if a person starts a new sports and exercise regime because they feel it will be fun, it becomes an example of a self determined person.

However, starting a physical journey because their peers are doing so, is not the mark of a self determined person. 

In psychology, particularly in counselling or therapy settings, self determination is an important factor to consider. For example, if a patient seeking treatment for addiction is self determined, he is likely to feel more motivated to go through the steps of therapy. 

Feeling like you ‘have to’ do something makes a person feel less motivated than if they ‘want to’ do something, particularly in psychological health settings.

Therapists therefore often ask their clients why they are choosing to seek help. 

Once they get a measure of how much self determination is involved in a person’s actions, psychologists can determine how to best help a client as well. 

For example, if the person relies on intrinsic motivation, or is self determined, interventions are designed to fulfill internal needs of growth, wellbeing and/or control. This means that the person may follow advice because they themselves want to be better. 

In non self determined individuals, psychological help still works. In these cases, the interventions can be designed based on a reward system.

Or, in some other cases, a supportive environment is created, so a person feels motivated through support. 

For this reason, psychologists have even developed scales to measure self determination in individuals. These scales are based on the self determination theory itself. 

  1. Aspiration Index
  2. Basic Psychological Needs Scale 
  3. Christian Religious Internalisation Scale 
  4. General Causality Orientation Scale 
  5. Health Care SDT Packet 
  6. Index of Autonomous Functioning 
  7. Mindful Attention Awareness Scale 
  8. Motivators Orientation 
  9. Motives for Physical Activity Measure 
  10. Perceived Autonomy Support 
  11. Intrinsic Motivation Inventory 
  12. Perceived Choice and Awareness of Self Scale
  13. Perception of Parents (Children’s Scale) 
  14. Perceived Competence scale  
  15. Self Regulation Questionnaires 
  16. Subjective Vitality Scale 
  17. Treatment Motivation Questionnaire 

How To Improve Self Determination

As we have reached the end of this article, it is now evident that self determination plays a huge role in motivation in various life settings.

Since it is a valuable trait, it is also important to look at ways to improve self determination. 

Following are some ways to improve self determination. 

1.  Goal setting 

It is important to set goals for yourself. Self-determined individuals do not merely follow guidelines given by others. They are motivated to make their own schedules and to follow through on them. 

Goal setting helps in school, work, and health settings. For people who are going through physical training to reach a certain weight or health goal, goal setting helps maintain focus and encourages behavior towards the pursuit of the goal. 

If you follow a regimen without a goal, the amount of self determination is automatically reduced because you are not working towards something for yourself.

You are merely following an order given by someone else. 

2. Self Motivation

Self determined behaviors help a person feel intrinsically motivated to complete a goal. If the motivation is not internal, the individual merely works till the rewards are coming in.

In these cases, once the rewards stop, the individual may find it difficult to start again. 

Hence, the way to maintain some level of motivation towards your work or goals is to feel self-motivated by them. This can be done by exploring how the work’s purpose matches your internal values. 

You can even try to relate your personal goals with the goals of the company you are working for.

This particularly holds true in health settings, as the goal of the behavior is common for the doctor and the patient; i.e. the patient’s good health. 

3. Decision Making 

Making decisions for yourself makes any person feel more in control of their life. These decisions may be big or small, but the main purpose behind them is to fulfill the basic need for autonomy. 

Decision-making leads to self determined behavior because the person in some way feels obligated to follow through with what they have decided.

For example, if you have decided to make pasta for lunch, you are more likely to make it than if someone just tells you to do it. 

While this is a basic example, it even works in larger settings. If you have made the decision to go to Business School, you are more likely to work harder on business courses yourself.

4. Take responsibility 

Taking responsibility for your behavior is a way to encourage self determined behavior. This is because it makes a person feel like if they make mistakes, it does reflect on their own skill and cannot be blamed on others. 

This responsibility, just like taking credit for work done well, influences more self determined behavior towards the work.

5. Social support

One of the needs of self determined individuals is the need for relatedness or connection. Hence, feeling emotionally attached to your work or role makes an individual more self-determined in their performance of the role. 

In this regard, finding social support or social connection is a good way to improve self determination. Group activities like Alcoholics Anonymous or support groups also work on this logica; finding social support fosters relatedness which improves self determination. 

6. Gain mastery 

Lastly, fulfilling the need for competence improves self determination. Hence, one way to ensure that you feel personally dedicated to a goal is to ensure you gain a certain mastery over the skills required for the goal. 

In sports especially, if you gain mastery over the sport, such as football, you may be self-determined to attend more practices, play more matches, follow the professional players, etc.

This is because the more you know how to play, the more you want to play. 


Self determination theory is thus a macroscopic social science theory that has application in various fields ranging from school to healthcare. 

This theory of human motivation, through its focus on universal needs, gives us a sense of self-awareness, self determination, and how to use these to our advantage in achieving our goals.

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