Self-Determination Theory

What is the Self-Determination Theory?

“Self-determination theory (SDT) is a macro theory of human motivation and personality, concerning people’s inherent growth tendencies and their innate psychological needs.” (Deci & Ryan, n.d.) In short, it is our motivation in the choices we make that exclude outside influences. This theory of motivation is particularly geared towards those behaviors, which are goal directed. The self-determination theory looks upon the percentage to which our individual behavior is not only self-determined but also self-motivated. The understanding of this theory is particular useful when assisting someone making changes to habits concerning health, fitness and/or wellness.

Studies have changed from the 70’s to the present (2000s). Certain studies were done to analyze internal and external motives and the dominance of such on our behaviors. Major studies have been completed on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to our own need to begin a particular activity. Those activities that we see as interesting or satisfying to us at that time. The opposite of intrinsic would be extrinsic which is motivated by outside influences. A motivator is either intrinsic or extrinsic to a degree. This degree is often measured based on our internalization. Internalization pertains to our attempts to change a once extrinsic motive to intrinsic.

For example, if you do not like to do an activity based on certain conclusions you made, possibly from observations, and then you learn some additional information from outside sources that suddenly changes your motivations to a point where this activity is now accepted into your personally endorsed values, changing your behaviors to initiating. From the work done by Deci and Ryan, regarding intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, it was determined that there were three main intrinsic needs involved in self-determination. (Deci & Ryan, n.d.) Deci and Ryan stated that there are three essential needs to motivate the self to initiate behavior consistency or changes. (Deci & Ryan, n.d.) “These needs being universal, innate and psychological and include the need for (1) competence, (2) autonomy, and (3) psychological relatedness.” (Deci & Ryan, n.d.)

Competence – Social Perception

“Competence is defined by a perceived self-belief in one’s ability to perform well in an activity.” (Deci & Ryan, 2000) One of the best way to achieve an individual’s competence as regards an activity is with feedback. Feedback can be presented in a few different forms, positive and skill-specific, as well as corrective. Positive reinforcement are as simple as telling someone “great job!” or “good going!” When you are giving feedback based on a particular action, then that is referred to as skill-specific. Skill-specific examples would be “great job, holding that pose” or “good going, with the execution of the lunges”. These feedback types need to be administered immediately and/or once a particular activity is done properly. Finally, as regards feedback, there is the administration of corrective feedback (sometimes thought of as constructive criticism). This type of feedback is when a change is required. Rather than telling someone that what they are doing is completely wrong and they need to do it this way, we would enforce the fact that part was done right while making suggestions, offering solutions, in order to get the needed change. This type of feedback is thought to be most effective when used the sandwich approach.

Firstly, you begin by pointing out what is being done correctly (first slice); next, provide a suggestion to alter that behavior that requires a change (sandwich filling); and, then complete with a positive comment (second slice). (Walsh, 2011) An example could be “you are keeping up nicely; for the next one, I want you to lift your legs higher, great job!” Feedback gives us ability to maintain or increase our competence. If you are beginner on an activity, you are motivated to try repeatedly; and, if you are advanced then you will try to maintain and even further excel. Feedback is important in just about every aspect of our lives; however, feedback is particularly important when we are attempting to change behaviors long-term.

Autonomy – Social Interaction

“Autonomy is defined as freedom of choice.” (Walsh, 2011) Autonomy is important when it comes to engaging in a behavior that might be new to you. For example, most people cannot stick to a diet change just because the doctor told them to do it or even if it is so severe that certain health issues are a result of current diet. People must feel that it is their deliberate choice. After a few successful changes, it becomes enjoyable, and, therefore, becomes a regular, consistent, behavior. Suggestions for increasing autonomy would be having several choices. If you go on a fab diet (eating only cabbage), there can be no expectation that this behavior can be maintained. Exercise classes have never worked for me because they offer little choice in terms of exercises being performed. However, once I tried a trainer to develop exercises for me, I was given choices. With those provided choices, I was able to keep up the work necessary, for now. I am not as clear if my behavior has completely been altered but the trainer changed my thoughts on the concepts.

Relatedness – Social Influence

“Relatedness is defined by a sense of shared experience.” (Walsh, 2011) Let’s face it, there is a great number of us that will not step foot in a gym. If a poll was taken, one of the reason would more than likely be because “no one there needs to be,” or something similar. However, most of us, would consider the YMCA. The factor that sets the YMCA from other gyms has to be their repeat claims that all are welcomed, thus no judgment. We then need to feel connected. Connected by hearing “good to see you again”. Alternatively, connected by seeing someone that appears to be “just like” us. As regards use of trainer, being asked our preferences, and offering their experiences, is a way of achieving relatedness. I find that if my trainer checks in with me, a call or an email, it assists me in reviewing my various behaviors for the week and somewhat keeps me on track.

Summary and Conclusion

In conclusion, self-determination theory can be affected, positively or negatively. However, our abilities to actively recognize these decisions can be tainted by our continual external influences and interferences. From the time that we start making decisions, certain influences have already made a strong impression on our abilities to do so. Our ability to navigate our self-determination can be difficult but is possible. The snapshot used in this particular paper was how the self-determination theory applies concerning changing behaviors as regards our health, fitness and/or wellness. For me this acquired understanding of the self-determination theory, is in itself a motivator for me. I recently came to realize that, for me, my current physical likeness bothers me coupled with obvious outside influences. I have implemented certain changes and really wanted to understand why I have failed so many times previously. I learned that my competence, autonomy and relatedness were all contributory. I now have a new lease on these needs as regards my current regiments and I will not only succeed but also exceed!


Baumeister, R., & Bushman, B. (2011-2014). Social Psychology and Human Nature 3rd Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (n.d.). About the Theory. Retrieved from Self-Determination Theory – An Approach to Human Motivation and Personality: Walsh, A. (2011, October). Articles – Self-Determination Theory: A Key To Motivation. Retrieved from IDEA – Health & Fitness Association: 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.

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