Self determination in psychology

Self-Determination Theory of Motivation - Center for Community Health & Prevention

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Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a theory of motivation that has been applied in many life domains such as health, sport, education and work. Health is an intrinsic goal for us all that is strongly influenced by our habits and lifestyle choices. Motivation—energy directed at a goal—plays a big role in our lifestyle choices and in our ability to make sustained changes as needed to maintain our health.

According to SDT, all of us have three key psychological needs as depicted graphically below. When our social environments, including the places where we receive health care, are more supportive of these psychological needs, the quality of our motivation is more autonomous. Alternatively, when our psychological needs are not well met or even thwarted through our social interactions, the quality of our motivation is more controlled. Researchers have found through many studies that when people are more autonomously motivated, they are more likely to achieve their health goals over time.

Read on to learn more about the science behind Self-Determination Theory. 


Early ideas of motivation simply suggested that you either have it (you are motivated) or you don’t (you are not motivated, or unmotivated). However, more than 40 years of research has shown that motivation is much more complex than this. The quality of motivation (autonomous or controlled) is key to both satisfaction and sustained success in achieving one’s goals.

Motivated behavior can be driven by rewards, punishments and internalized pressures from others. It can also be fueled by deeply held values or interest and enjoyment of the behavior itself. In simple terms, people can feel more pressured or controlled to behave in a certain way or they can feel they have a choice in how to behave. For example, people can be driven by:

  • Reward: People might try to lose weight because their employer will pay them to lose weight.
  • Punishment: People might try to lose weight because their insurance company will raise the cost of their health insurance if they don’t lose weight.
  • Internal Pressure: People might try to lose weight because others have told them they should lose weight or they will be upset with them.
  • Value: People might try to lose weight because they want to be healthier and be a positive role model for their kids.
  • Interest/Enjoyment: People might try to lose weight because they really like exercising and eating in a healthy way.

When people are mainly motivated by rewards, punishments, and internal pressure, they have a harder time initiating and maintaining their behaviors over the long term. However, when people are more autonomous—that is, when people are motivated more by their value for the behavior, or by their interest and enjoyment of the behavior—they tend to be more persistent in their behavior, feel more satisfied, and have higher well-being overall.

Psychological Needs

Self-determination theory suggests that all humans have three basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that underlie growth and development.

  • Autonomy refers to feeling one has choice and is willingly endorsing one’s behavior. The opposite experience is feeling compelled or controlled in one’s behavior.
  • Competence refers to the experience of mastery and being effective in one’s activity.
  • Finally, relatedness refers to the need to feel connected and a sense of belongingness with others.

The social environment (e.g., family, friends, co-workers, health care professionals, culture, etc.) can promote or get in the way of people’s strivings by the extent to which they support a person’s basic psychological needs.

  • Autonomy is supported by attempting to grasp and acknowledge the person's wishes, preferences and perspectives, conveying understanding of their point of view, providing a rationale for engaging in a behavior, and providing choice in how to behave. Supporting someone’s autonomy also means refraining from trying to control or pressure them to act in a certain way.
  • Competence is supported by providing the person with optimal challenges and opportunities (specific goals that are challenging enough, but not overwhelming), encouraging their sense of initiation (try it out!), providing structure (for example, evidence-based health recommendations) to mobilize and organize behavior and providing relevant feedback.
  • Finally, relatedness is supported when others are involved and show interest in the person’s activities, are empathic in responding to their feelings and convey that the person is significant, cared for, and loved.

When these needs are optimally supported, evidence suggests that people are more autonomous in their behaviors, are more likely to persist at their behaviors, and feel better overall.

Here at the Center for Community Health & Prevention, our approach is focused on providing you with evidence-based information and supporting your psychological needs so that we can help you discover what works for you on your journey to making healthy changes in your life.

This material is based on the following references:
  • LaGuardia, J. 2017. Self-determination theory in practice: how to create an optimally supportive health care environment. Middletown, DE. Independently published 2017.
  • Ntoumanis N, Ng JYY, Prestwich A, Quested E, Hancox JE, Thøgersen-Ntoumani C, Deci EL, Ryan RM, Lonsdale C, Williams GC. A meta-analysis of self-determination theory-informed intervention studies in the health domain: effects on motivation, health behavior, physical, and psychological health. Health Psychol Rev. 2021 Jun;15(2):214-244. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2020.1718529. Epub 2020 Feb 3. PMID: 31983293.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. Self-determination theory: basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. 2017. NY: The Guilford Press.

Relevant Team Publications

  • Mayo NL, Russell HA, Holt K, Williams GC. Implementation of a self-determination based clinical program to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Journal of Health Psychology. January 2022. doi:10.1177/13591053211068124

Theory –


People are centrally concerned with motivation — how to move themselves or others to act. Everywhere, parents, teachers, coaches, and managers struggle with how to motivate those that they mentor, and individuals struggle to find energy, mobilize effort and persist at the tasks of life and work. People are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them.  Yet, just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values.  These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless they can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts. The interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature is the territory of Self-Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) represents a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. SDT articulates a meta-theory for framing motivational studies, a formal theory that defines intrinsic and varied extrinsic sources of motivation, and a description of the respective roles of intrinsic and types of extrinsic motivation in cognitive and social development and in individual differences. Perhaps more importantly, SDT propositions also focus on how social and cultural factors facilitate or undermine people’s sense of volition and initiative, in addition to their well-being and the quality of their performance.  Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity. In addition, SDT proposes that the degree to which any of these three psychological needs is unsupported or thwarted within a social context will have a robust detrimental impact on wellness in that setting.

The dynamics of psychological need support and need thwarting have been studied within families, classrooms, teams, organizations, clinics, and cultures using specific propositions detailed within SDT. The SDT framework thus has both broad and behavior-specific implications for understanding practices and structures that enhance versus diminish need satisfaction and the full functioning that follows from it. These many implications are best revealed by the varied papers listed on this website, which range from basic research on motivational micro-processes to applied clinical trials aiming at population outcomes.

Meta-Theory: The Organismic Viewpoint

SDT is an organismic dialectical approach. It begins with the assumption that people are active organisms, with evolved tendencies toward growing, mastering ambient challenges, and integrating new experiences into a coherent sense of self. These natural developmental tendencies do not, however, operate automatically, but instead require ongoing social nutriments and supports. That is, the social context can either support or thwart the natural tendencies toward active engagement and psychological growth, or it can catalyze lack of integration, defense, and fulfillment of need-substitutes. Thus, it is the dialectic between the active organism and the social context that is the basis for SDT’s predictions about behavior, experience, and development.

Within SDT, the nutriments for healthy development and functioning are specified using the concept of basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. To the extent that the needs are ongoingly satisfied, people will develop and function effectively and experience wellness, but to the extent that they are thwarted, people will more likely evidence ill-being and non-optimal functioning. The darker sides of human behavior and experience, such as certain types of psychopathology, prejudice, and aggression are understood in terms of reactions to basic needs having been thwarted, either developmentally or proximally.

Formal Theory:  SDT’s Six Mini-Theories

Formally, SDT comprises six mini-theories, each of which was developed to explain a set of motivationally based phenomena that emerged from laboratory and field research. Each, therefore, addresses one facet of motivation or personality functioning.

1. Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) concerns intrinsic motivation, motivation that is based on the satisfactions of behaving “for its own sake.”  Prototypes of intrinsic motivation are children’s exploration and play, but intrinsic motivation is a lifelong creative wellspring. CET specifically addresses the effects of social contexts on intrinsic motivation, or how factors such as rewards, interpersonal controls, and ego-involvements impact intrinsic motivation and interest. CET highlights the critical roles played by competence and autonomy supports in fostering intrinsic motivation, which is critical in education, arts, sport, and many other domains.


2. The second mini-theory, Organismic Integration Theory (OIT), addresses the topic of extrinsic motivation in its various forms, with their properties, determinants, and consequences. Broadly speaking, extrinsic motivation is behavior that is instrumental—that aims toward outcomes extrinsic to the behavior itself. Yet, there are distinct forms of instrumentality, which include external regulation, introjection, identification, and integration. These subtypes of extrinsic motivation are seen as falling along a continuum of internalization. The more internalized the extrinsic motivation, the more autonomous the person will be when enacting the behaviors. OIT is further concerned with social contexts that enhance or forestall internalization—that is, with what conduces toward people either resisting, partially adopting, or deeply internalizing values, goals, or belief systems. OIT particularly highlights supports for autonomy and relatedness as critical to internalization.


3. Causality Orientations Theory (COT), the third mini-theory, describes individual differences in people’s tendencies to orient toward environments and regulate behavior in various ways. COT describes and assesses three types of causality orientations: the autonomy orientation in which persons act out of interest in and valuing of what is occurring; the control orientation in which the focus is on rewards, gains, and approval; and the impersonal or amotivated orientation characterized by anxiety concerning competence.


4.  Fourth,  Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) elaborates the concept of evolved psychological needs and their relations to psychological health and well-being. BPNT argues that psychological well-being and optimal functioning is predicated on autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  Therefore, contexts that support versus thwart these needs should invariantly impact wellness. The theory argues that all three needs are essential and that if any is thwarted there will be distinct functional costs. Because basic needs are universal aspects of functioning, BPNT looks at cross-developmental and cross-cultural settings for validation and refinements.


5. The fifth mini-theory, Goal Contents Theory (GCT), grows out of the distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic goals and their impact on motivation and wellness. Goals are seen as differentially affording basic need satisfactions and are thus differentially associated with well-being. Extrinsic goals such as financial success, appearance, and popularity/fame have been specifically contrasted with intrinsic goals such as community, close relationships, and personal growth, with the former more likely associated with lower wellness and greater ill-being.


6. Relatedness, which has to do with the development and maintenance of close personal relationships such as best friends and romantic partners as well as belonging to groups, is one of the three basic psychological needs. Relationships Motivation Theory (RMT), the sixth mini-theory, is concerned with these and other relationships, and posits that some amount of such interactions is not only desirable for most people but is in fact essential for their adjustment and well-being because the relationships provide satisfaction of the need for relatedness. However, research shows that not only is the relatedness need satisfied in high-quality relationships, but the autonomy need and to a lesser degree the competence need are also satisfied. Indeed, the highest quality personal relationships are ones in which each partner supports the autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs of the other.

Other Topics of Interest

As SDT has expanded, both theoretical developments and empirical findings have led SDT researchers to examine a plethora of processes and phenomena integral to personality growth, effective functioning, and wellness. For example, SDT research has focused on the role of mindfulness as a foundation for autonomous regulation of behavior, leading to both refined measurement and theorizing about awareness. The study of facilitating conditions for intrinsic motivation led to a theory and measurement strategy regarding vitality, an indicator of both mental and physical wellness. Work on vitality also uncovered the remarkable positive impact of the experience of nature on well-being. Some research within SDT has more closely examined the forms personal passions can take, with individuals being obsessive or harmonious as a function of internalization processes. Cross-cultural tests of SDT have led to an increased understanding of how economic and cultural forms impact the invariant aspects of human nature. Research on wellness has also led to new theory and research on the assessment of well-being itself, including the distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic forms of living. Specific topics such as autonomy versus controlled motivation has led to greater understanding of internalized control such as ego-involvement and contingent self-esteem and of the differences between them and autonomous self-regulation. Indeed these few examples supply just a taste of how the generative framework of SDT has enhanced research on a variety of processes of interest to the field.


In addition to formal theory development, research has applied SDT in many domains including education, organizations, sport and physical activity, religion, health and medicine, parenting, virtual environments and media, close relationships, and psychotherapy. Across these domains research has looked at how controlling versus autonomy-supportive environments impact functioning and wellness, as well as performance and persistence. In addition, supports for relatedness and competence are seen as interactive with volitional supports in fostering engagement and value within specific settings, and within domains of activity. This body of applied research has led to considerable specification of techniques, including goal structures and ways of communicating that have proven effective at promoting maintained, volitional motivation.

The varied articles on this website demonstrate the many types of inquiry associated with the SDT framework, as well as its generative capacity with respect to practical issues in human organizations of all kinds. Relevant research reports and theoretical discussion are listed in the Publications section, organized by topic.

By focusing on the fundamental psychological tendencies toward intrinsic motivation and integration, SDT occupies a unique position in psychology, as it addresses not only the central questions of why people do what they do, but also the costs and benefits of various ways of socially regulating or promoting behavior. Overviews of the theory can be found in Ryan and Deci (2000) and in Deci and Ryan (1985, 2000), as well as numerous other articles and chapters identified here on our website.


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

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

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Literature on self-determination - Moscow School of Conflictology

2) Self-determination is based on position and choice.

3) Components of SELF definition: SELF restriction, SELF organization, SELF management, SELF presentation. nine0008

4) Types of self-determination: personal, professional, social, existential.

5) Self-determination in position, situation and activity .

SELF-DETERMINATION (eng. self-determination) — the process and result of a person's choice of his position, goals and means of self-realization in specific circumstances of life; the main mechanism for gaining and manifesting freedom by a person.

The philosophical idea of ​​self-determination arose in the 18th century. in connection with the interest in freedom and the primacy of the will of the individual. The term was used to refer to any group believed to have a collective will. nine0005

Self-determination is the establishment by a person of his own characteristics, capabilities, abilities, the choice by a person of criteria, standards for evaluating himself, a “bar” for himself, values, based on the requirements of society and to himself. Self-determination is an active process of understanding oneself, one's place in society and one's purpose in life. Self-determination is a complex, multi-stage process of human development.

"Generational discourse in the practices of self-determination"

Alekseev N.G. The use of ODI in the system of teacher education. - Perm: Perm Polytechnic Institute, 1992.

Anisimov O.S. Pedagogical concept of postgraduate education. Issue. 14. - M.: RAMA, 1994. S. 47-48.

Vygotsky L.S. . Psychology. M.: Publishing House of EKSMO-Press, 2002. (Series "The World of Psychology"). P. 714.

Galperin P. Ya . Psychology of thinking and the doctrine of the gradual formation of mental actions. - In the book: The study of thinking in Soviet psychology. M., Nauka, 1966, p. 236-277.

Gromyko Yu.V. Work of self-determination in the modern world: A textbook for managers and educators. - M.: Pushkin Institute, 2009. - 544 p. - Series "Thought-activity pedagogy".

Zaretsky V., Comenius R . Conceptual scheme of self-determination. // Centaur. - 1995. - No. 2. - p. 10-12.

Zaretsky V.K., Kamensky R.G., Krasnov S.I. Self-determination as a psychological and pedagogical problem. // Abstracts of the Russian scientific-practical conference “Man in the pedagogical system of K.D. Ushinsky”, Kursk, February 22-24 1995 Leontiev A.N. Selected psychological works. /Activity. Consciousness. Personality. T.2, M.: Pedagogy., 1983. P.141.

Ozhegov S. I. Explanatory dictionary of the Russian language. — M.: Sov. encyclopedia, 1975.S. 17.

Pryazhnikov N. S. - Active methods of professional self-determination: Textbook. - M .: MGPPI, 2001.

Rubinshtey S.L . Orientation of personality // Reader in psychology: Proc. Allowance for students ped. in-tov /Comp. V.V. Mironenko; Under. Ed. A.V. Petrovsky. - 2nd ed., revised. And extra. - M.: Enlightenment, 1987. P.154.

Solovyov V. S. Works in two volumes. Organizational and activity game. Collection of texts (1)./From the archive of G.P. Shchedrovitsky. T.9 (1). –M.: MMK heritage. 2004. (p. 267 - 268; 273-274)


For philosophizing conflictologists

Conflictology and conflicts

what is it, self-determination in choosing a profession in adolescents

Read: 3 min.

Every day we help teenagers and adults to choose a profession. But it is more scientific and accurate to call this process help in the professional self-determination of the individual. Starting from adolescence, a person thinks - Who am I? What is my place in this world? What am I? What I can? What do I want? Self-determination is a rather complex concept. Let's figure it out.

What is self-determination of personality

Self-determination of personality is a conscious independent choice by a person of the life path and positions that he adheres to in various situations. The choice of values, moral standards, profession, religion, living conditions. In the process, we answer two questions for ourselves: "Who to be?" and "What to be?" .

One can speak of self-determination only when a person has freedom of choice . Even 150 years ago, our great-great-great-grandparents had few opportunities to freely choose their type of activity, religion and living conditions. And still, of course, we cannot talk about absolute freedom of self-determination. It is difficult to become a Catholic if parents profess Orthodoxy. It's hard to get into Harvard if you were born into a low-income Vologda family. But, fortunately, it is still possible. According to the famous psychologist Sergey Rubinshtein , external causes act only through internal conditions . And Walt Disney said to this: "All our dreams can become a reality if we have the courage to follow them to the end."

What types of self-determination are researchers studying

Self-determination of personality is discussed in all humanities - psychology, philosophy, sociology, pedagogy, etc. Researchers are interested in different aspects of choice. nine0005

    Social self-determination - conscious belonging to social groups and adherence to social norms. Fan of "Spartacus"? Classical ballet lover? Hipster? Professional criminal?
    Civil self-determination - the position of a citizen. How do I feel about my country and what am I ready to do for it?
    Socio-political self-determination - adherence to political views and parties. Conservative? Liberal? Or for complete anarchy? nine0103 ✔ Professional self-determination - a conscious choice of profession and life's work. Want to be an actor? Doctor? Leader? Have your own business?
    Religious self-determination - adherence to a particular religion and attitude towards other confessions. Do I consider myself tolerant?
    Family self-determination - an idea of ​​the family model and relationships in it. Do I want to get married and have children? Is it possible to be married to one person for the rest of your life? nine0103 ✔ Intra-group self-determination - awareness of one's role within a social group. Am I a leader or a follower? Can I influence other members of the group?

Even literature is included in the discussion about self-determination. It is interesting that all the literature of modern and recent times is built on the problems of characters with personal self-determination. Eugene Onegin, Julien Sorel, Dorian Gray, Ilya Oblomov, Madame Bovary, Rodion Raskolnikov, Anna Karenina, Grigory Melekhov, Yuri Zhivago - any character in a psychological novel has difficulty determining his position in life. What kind of self-determination is referred to in the novel "Anna Karenina"? What about Crime and Punishment? nine0005

Therefore, it is worth considering a literature lesson not only from the point of view of broadening one's horizons, but also from the point of view of expanding the emotional experience of adolescents. The book makes it possible to simulate unusual social and psychological situations and weigh - what would I do in the character's place?

Adolescent self-determination

At what age can one speak of self-determination? Even a preschooler can consciously choose behavior patterns: I will be capricious in order to . .. But this issue becomes relevant in adolescence, when a teenager receives the full range of choice, or rather "faces" with it, because it's time to choose. The signal that a teenager has "self-determined" is that he0041 himself makes decisions about the choice and is responsible for them . That is, he does not blame his parents if something goes wrong.

Of all the types of self-determination for a teenager , social and intra-group ones come to the fore. He is looking for his place among his peers in the classroom, in the sports section or choir, in the yard.

Self-determination is the most important stage of growing up. A self-determined teenager means a socially mature teenager who is ready for adulthood. This is the kind of personality parents want to raise. nine0103 Stages of self-determination of a teenager:
① Aware of being part of a society in which social norms, values ​​and evaluations operate.
② Compares himself with others and "trying on" the requirements of reality.
③ Evaluates himself.
④ Learns to choose a social role, citizenship, values, profession.

In Western psychology, the process of personal self-determination is called identity formation . This term emphasizes that in order to grow up, a person needs to learn to separate himself from the outside world, understand his uniqueness and find his place in the outside world. nine0103

What is professional self-determination of a person

Professional self-determination follows the social one. The term "professional self-determination" is used as a synonym for the word "career guidance". Although it is possible to draw a fine line between these words. When we talk about "career guidance for young people", young people look like a passive object to which career guidance methods are applied. And in "professional self-determination" one can clearly feel the activity of a person who is in the process of self-determination. Therefore, psychologists prefer to talk specifically about the professional self-determination of high school students. nine0005

If you want to know more about the history of professional self-determination in Russia,
read our article "History of Career Guidance in Russia in Infographics" >>

In a modern school, the stage of choosing a profession lasts from 14 to 18 years. It is important for a high school student to imagine what place in the labor market he wants and is ready to take. To "delay" professional self-determination up to the age of 20, you can choose a fundamental education. In this case, the moment of making a decision comes around the 3rd year, during the period of choosing specializations. nine0005

Like any other type of self-determination, choosing a profession requires serious intellectual work and active search. Specialists in vocational guidance use the term "readiness for professional self-determination". This is the interest and ability of a person to make a professional choice, while using their own resources and available information.

The level of readiness can be assessed with the help of professional diagnostic methods. To understand whether a teenager is ready for self-determination, it is important to evaluate various internal and external indicators. nine0005

    1. Internal readiness (subjective). The source of the formation of internal readiness is the subject of self-determination itself. Readiness factors include:
      a. Self-understanding: adequate self-assessment of one's abilities, educational and professional achievements, interests, character traits, awareness of the image of "I" in the context of professional self-determination.
      b. Responsibility , or "autonomy" (the term of A.P. Chernyavskaya): understanding that a professional choice must be made independently, without pressure from parents, friends, teachers, and also be responsible for it in the future. nine0103 c. Emotional mood: motives for choosing a profession, a positive attitude towards professional activities and the need for training, life optimism, emotional balance and tolerance for failures.
    2. Awareness: obtaining information necessary for professional self-determination from external sources. What types of information is required for a teenager who wants to choose a profession:
      a. Knowledge of professions and fields of activity: awareness of the work of specialists in specific professions, their working conditions and salary levels; knowledge of professional areas and sectors of the economy; knowledge about the demand for professions now and about the professions of the future; understanding of modern features and trends in the labor market.
      b. Knowledge of education systems: awareness of higher and secondary vocational education in their region and country, opportunities to study abroad, knowledge of admission rules, terms and features of training. nine0103 c. The absence of myths and misconceptions about choosing a profession: understanding that the professional trajectory is changeable and is not chosen "once and for all", the understanding that there are no professions that directly lead to wealth or success.
    3. Decision-making factors: life attitudes of a person that influence the choice of profession:
      a. Choice of education: formation of values ​​and inclinations in choosing a university, college, technical school or other type of education, attitude to the choice of education in terms of duration of study and cost. nine0103 b. Consistency of choice: compliance of a person's opinion about the choice of profession with the opinion of the environment - parents, friends, teachers; taking into account the needs of society and the labor market when choosing a profession.
      c. Certainty of choice: identified inclinations towards a particular profession or steps taken earlier towards choosing a profession.

If you want to assess the level of readiness of a teenager for professional self-determination,
offer him

Testing will show how seriously a high school student approaches the issue of choosing the future, how active his life position is.

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