Self-determination theory is a framework that examines how different types of motivation fuel our growth as human beings.

Motivation comes in all shapes and sizes. You may crave glory from competition, or thrive from being a source of support in your community.

Many people are motivated by trophies or rewards, but what about the internal goals that keep you feeling determined?

The things that push you into action can be unique, but according to the self-determination theory (SDT), there are a few common factors most people require to unlock their personal growth and human potential.

Originally conceptualized in 1977 by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, self-determination theory suggests you can experience positive growth and satisfaction as a person as long as you meet core needs.

These core needs are connected to different forms of motivation, and each fulfills your sense of self in a unique way.

According to experts, satisfying the core needs proposed by SDT has been linked to better well-being and improved mental health.

The three core needs identified by self-determination theory are:

  • autonomy: feeling you have control and independence over what you’re doing
  • competence: feeling as though you have done and can do a good job
  • relatedness: feeling as though you have meaning and purpose

These core needs are connected to two types of motivation, according to SDT:

  • extrinsic motivation: behaviors are motivated by an external reward
  • intrinsic motivation: behaviors are inherently satisfying or based on internal values and motives

An example of extrinsic motivation may be a promotion at work or a salary increase. It’s something tangible.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, could be the desire of doing a job well, no matter what the outcome.

SDT proposes that your personal growth is best met when you act primarily on your intrinsic motivations.

This doesn’t mean it’s wrong or bad to strive for external motives. Extrinsic motivation can help you achieve the three core needs, too, as long as you feel the reward aligns with your inner self.

When this happens, extrinsic motives can result in intrinsic rewards, like the feeling of accomplishment and success after you were given a promotion.

At the heart of SDT is an examination of what motivates you as a person. The theory identifies two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. These motivators are a part of your personal ethics, beliefs, and values. They move you to act a certain way because it feels fulfilling to your inner self to do so.

You might learn a new language, for example, because you have a curiosity and interest in linguistics. Or, you might decide to climb a high mountain peak because you’re drawn to nature or want to follow in your parents’ footsteps.

In other words, self-determination refers to following intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivators are external rewards. These rewards can be items, like money or trophies, or they can be physical results, such as weight loss or an improved running time.

The crossover between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

The self-determination theory proposes that a greater sense of well-being and personal growth is associated with following intrinsic motivation, more so than extrinsic.

In other words, doing what fulfills your inner self can encourage more growth than focusing on doing things for external rewards alone.

Extrinsic motivation can result in intrinsic benefit, however, through a process called internalization.

Internalization in SDT refers to when an extrinsic motivator aligns with your inner self and goals.

For example, going after a prestigious sports award is an extrinsic motivator that may also align with your inner values of hard work and love of athletics.

For this reason, there’s an important place for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in SDT. Under a social support system, both forms of motivation can contribute to well-being.

What motivates you can be very different from what motivates someone else.

According to the Center for Self-Determination Theory, SDT has branched into six mini-theories to explain this better and address different aspects of human motivation and behavior:

  • cognitive evaluation theory (CET)
  • organismic integration theory (OIT)
  • causality orientations theory (COT)
  • basic psychological needs theory (BPNT)
  • goal contents theory (GCT)
  • relationships motivation theory (RMT)

Cognitive evaluation theory

CET supports the notion that autonomy and competence, two of the core needs, are most important for encouraging intrinsic motivation.

It provides a framework for experts to track how factors, like rewards and ego-involvement, impact intrinsic motivation.

Organismic integration theory

OIT looks closely at extrinsic motivation and its different subtypes, including:

  • external regulation: behaviors to gain a reward or avoid negative consequences
  • introjections: behaviors from guilt, obligation, or a need to prove a point
  • identification: behaviors because the action is considered important
  • integration: behaviors from the goal being aligned with personal values

These subtypes can support or hinder the core need for autonomy.

Causality orientations theory

COT focuses on how your environment can cause you to regulate your behaviors in certain ways.

It’s made up of three cause-and-effect processes:

  • autonomy orientation: behaviors are in response to interests and values of what’s happening
  • control orientation: behaviors stem from available rewards, approval, or gains
  • amotivated (impersonal) orientation: low motivation due to feeling unconfident

Basic psychological needs theory

BPNT explores how not meeting the three SDT core needs impacts optimal functioning and psychological well-being.

Within this framework, cultural settings and norms can be evaluated for their effects on competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Goal contents theory

GCT explores how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation impact well-being. It looks at how following extrinsic goals is often associated with lower wellness outcomes.

Relationships motivation theory

RMT looks at the importance of interpersonal relationships and how they affect the core need of relatedness.

This theory proposes that high-quality relationships not only meet the need for relatedness, but also naturally offer support systems for competence and autonomy.

In SDT, the core needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness create the optimal framework for you to grow as an individual.

Fulfilling all these needs can allow you to behave through what’s known in self-determination theory as autonomous motivation.

Autonomy occurs when your actions aren’t inhibited by intrinsic or extrinsic factors. You’re acting on volition. You feel in control. You feel confident. You have a sense of social value. There are no outside forces coercing you or inside misgivings holding you back.

Autonomous motivation is what drives self-determination. The theory proposes that you need to meet each core need to achieve it.

Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory considers autonomous motivation as linked to persistence, adherence, and effective performance, particularly during demanding tasks. It’s also associated with psychological health.

In 2008, Richard Ryan laid the foundation for the use of SDT in the field of mental healthcare.

His research indicated that through autonomy, there was a higher chance you could achieve positive treatment outcomes and management of symptoms.

A 2016 research article noted that the concepts of self-determination theory were involved in active engagement and adherence to change during psychotherapy sessions.

The more satisfied someone was with their therapist, the more motivated they were to attend therapy sessions.

Feeling valued and listened to, for example, may be a powerful motivator for treatment.

SDT may also help explore and understand new ways to meet core needs during therapy.

You may be able to discover how and where in your life those core needs didn’t get fulfilled, and then develop coping mechanisms for meeting them.

Self-determination theory is a complex theory that explores how inner and outer motivation affects your behaviors and sense of self.

It looks at the relationship between motivation and the fulfillment of core needs such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

The theory proposes that if you work on meeting these needs, and have strong intrinsic motivation to engage in behaviors to do so, you may be more likely to achieve mental wellness.