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How do you stay motivated? What motivates your peers and coworkers? Are rewards motivating factors or do people have an internal drive to persist until a given activity is completed? This lesson will describe a theory that encompasses both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators: the self-determination theory.


Do you ever have trouble finding a way to motivate yourself? Maybe it is the end of a long day and you still have two hours of work ahead of you. Are you motivated by external forces such as money and praise you expect to receive after the work is complete? Maybe you are intrinsically interested in the work, so persistence is easy despite your state of exhaustion because you want to learn and finish the task.Researchers spend a considerable amount of time and effort trying to understand the forces that drive motivation.

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Research shows that people are indeed motivated by external factors such as praise and rewards. But they are often motivated by internal factors as well, such as interest in the subject or task, personal values or curiosity. The interaction between these external and internal factors can be explained through a motivational theory discussed in this lesson: self-determination theory.

Self-Determination Theory: Definition and Background

Motivational psychologists define self-determination theory as the process of utilizing one’s will. This theory implies that humans must be cognizant of their strengths and limitations and of the forces acting on them, leading them to having choices in their actions rather than being controlled or pressured.

Self-determination theory is concerned with people’s inherent and innate tendencies and psychological needs. The research on self-determination theory evolved from research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.Briefly, extrinsic motivation is motivation promoted by factors external to the individual.

Individuals who are extrinsically motivated work on tasks because they believe that participation will result in desirable outcomes such as rewards or praise.

Examples of extrinsic motivation are money and praise
Extrinsic Motivation Illustration

In contrast, intrinsic motivation refers to motivation to engage in an activity for its own sake. People who are intrinsically motivated perform tasks and engage in behaviors because they find them enjoyable. Simply participating in the activity is reward enough.


In order to be self-determining, people need to decide how to act in their environment. Although it may sound counterintuitive, people will not be fulfilled if their needs are met automatically without choice and having a say in how they participate in an activity or behavior.

The three basic assumptions of self-determination theory explain this idea. First, humans are inherently proactive with their potential and the mastering of their drives and emotions. Second, humans have inherent tendency toward growth, development and integrated functioning. Third, optimal development and actions are inherent in humans, but they don’t happen automatically.Self-determination theory emphasizes humans’ natural growth toward positive motivation; however, if people are not nurtured from the social environment they will not benefit and grow and their basic needs will not be fulfilled.

Three Basic Psychological Needs

Theorists propose that there are three basic psychological needs that underlie behavior. These include the need for competence, autonomy and relatedness.

These needs are viewed as innate, or, in other words, not learned and are seen in humans across gender, culture and time. These needs must be met in order to foster growth and well-being.The need for competence is similar to the need for mastery and understanding of the environment. Humans have an innate need to seek control of outcomes and experience mastery of any given situation. Humans also need to feel and be competent in their interactions with others and feel connected to the larger context of a situation.

Engaging in challenging tasks fulfills the need to feel competent, which encourages intrinsic motivation.The need for relatedness is the universal need to interact, to be connected to and to experience caring for others. This can be satisfied by sharing thoughts and feelings with others, feeling accepted and receiving confirmation from others.The need for autonomy refers to the need for a sense of control, agency or autonomy in interactions in the environment.

Autonomy also refers to being self-governed and taking responsibility for the choices one makes. The need for autonomy is not the need to be detached, selfish or submissive to others.The three needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness interact and form one’s self-determination. Feelings of competence enhance intrinsic motivation only when they are supported by autonomy. For example, completing a project successfully, which leads to feelings of competence, will lead to that person being intrinsically motivated only if they believe the actions (such as staying up late to finish the project) were internally regulated or autonomous. If the person believes he only stayed up late and finished the project because his parents expected him to do well in school, the effects would not be intrinsically motivating.

Types of Self-Determined Behavior and Motivation

Self-determination, much like self-esteem, is specific to a particular behavior or activity.

Individuals may hold differing types of self-determination, ranging from non-self-determined to self-determined, depending on the situation or behavior. There are different types of motivation that vary in their degree of autonomy depending on how successful the individual is at internalizing the external regulation of behavior.On one end of the spectrum, we have amotivation. Amotivation is a lack of motivation. Individuals simply go through the motions to accomplish the behavior or activity.

This results from not placing value on an activity, not feeling competent in the activity or holding low expectations for this activity.As we move along the spectrum, we come to external regulation. External regulation is when individuals perform behaviors out of response to extrinsic forces, such as rewards, praise and punishment. During external regulation, the individual is only motivated by the reward. There is no sense of value attributed to the activity beyond the external motivator.

The next stage is introjected regulation. Introjected regulation is when individuals engage in an activity in order to comply with external pressure. Individuals experiencing introjected regulation have partially internalized the behavior but not taken full ownership of it. They perform the behavior to avoid guilt or anxiety or to achieve a sense of pride.Identification is when the individuals identify with the value of an activity, have accepted regulation of the activity as their own and more willingly engage in the activity because they see its personal relevance.And then on the full opposite end of the spectrum, we have integration. Integration occurs when individuals have fully accepted the activity or behavior that someone else expects of them by integrating that activity or behavior with other aspects of their values and identity.

For example, a student integrates completing his assignments on time with his personal values of being a good student.

Classroom Practices

Educators often have difficulty determining how to motivate their students. It is apparent that educators should seek to motivate students by increasing the intrinsic motivation of academic tasks and duties. By utilizing principles of the self-determination theory, educators can address motivational issues and provide experiences that foster intrinsic motivation and a need for achievement.For example, when cognitive tasks are slightly above children’s skill level, they spend more time on them and they show more intrinsic motivation. They also exhibit intense joy and pride when they master the tasks.

These feelings can lead to increased intrinsic motivation for school over time, whereas low feelings of competence will decrease intrinsic motivation. Educators should attempt to provide instruction and assign projects that are slightly above the student’s skill levels.Also, when students feel secure in their environment and are connected to others, they are more likely to seek out mastery experiences (i.

e., those experiences they engage in to develop knowledge for the sake of knowledge), promoting a sense of competence. They may develop intrinsic motivation for academic tasks and activities that are modeled or valued by others to whom they feel or want to feel attached. For example, students may become intrinsically motivated to learn if they have bonded with a teacher or with peers who show them the value of learning.

Lesson Summary

Self-determination theory involves the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to explain the process of individuals utilizing their own will on behaviors and actions. The three interacting needs of self-determination theory are a need for competence, a need for relatedness and a need for autonomy. Meeting these needs results in higher intrinsic motivation for a given task or behavior.

Self-determination differs and can change depending on the specific task or behavior. An individual can range from being completely void of motivation, referred to as amotivation, or can be highly intrinsically motivated toward a task or behavior, which is referred to as integration.Educators can promote and increase internal motivation by creating lessons and activities that are slightly above the student’s skill level and by instilling a sense of pride and value of academic duties and achievements.

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