Self-determination theory (SDT) is a macro theory of human motivation and personality that concerns people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs. It is concerned with the motivation behind choices people make without external influence and interference. SDT focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and self-determined.
In the 1970s, research on SDT evolved from studies comparing the intrinsic and extrinsic motives, and from growing understanding of the dominant role intrinsic motivation played in an individual’s behavior but it was not until the mid-1980s that SDT was formally introduced and accepted as a sound empirical theory. Research applying SDT to different areas in social psychology has increased considerably since the 2000s.
Key studies that led to emergence of SDT included research on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to initiating an activity for its own sake because it is interesting and satisfying in itself, as opposed to doing an activity to obtain an external goal (extrinsic motivation). Different types of motivations have been described based on the degree they have been internalized. Internalization refers to the active attempt to transform an extrinsic motive into personally endorsed values and thus assimilate behavioural regulations that were originally external.
Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan later expanded on the early work differentiating between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and proposed three main intrinsic needs involved in self-determination. According to Deci and Ryan, the three psychological needs motivate the self to initiate behavior and specify nutriments that are essential for psychological health and well-being of an individual. These needs are said to be universal, innate and psychological and include the need for competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness.
SDT is centered on the belief that human nature shows persistent positive features, that it repeatedly shows effort, agency and commitment in their lives that the theory calls “inherent growth tendencies.” People also have innate psychological needs that are the basis for self-motivation and personality integration.
SDT identifies three innate needs that, if satisfied, allow optimal function and growth:
These needs are seen as universal necessities that are innate, not learned (instinctive), and seen in humanity across time, gender and culture.
Deci and Vansteenkiste claim that there are three essential elements of the theory:
- Humans are inherently proactive with their potential and mastering their inner forces (such as drives and emotions)
- Humans have inherent tendency toward growth development and integrated functioning
- Optimal development and actions are inherent in humans but they don’t happen automatically
To actualise their inherent potential they need nurturing from the social environment.
If this happens there are positive consequence (e.g. well being and growth) but if not, there are negative consequences. So SDT emphasises humans’ natural growth toward positive motivation; however, this is thwarted if their basic needs are not fulfilled.