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The theory of self-determination: what it is and what it proposes

The theory of self-determination: what it is and what it proposes

July 23, 2024

The human being is, by definition, an active being: we are continuously carrying out a great variety of behaviors in order to stay alive, adapt to the environment or develop ourselves in such a way that we can deal with the vicissitudes and needs that arise throughout our life cycle. We use the means at our disposal, both internally and at the level of those available in the media, in order to act.

But ... why do we act? What moves us ?. These seemingly simple questions have led to the elaboration of a great diversity of theories regarding what it is that moves us to act. One of these theories, which actually brings together a series of subtheories about it, is the theory of self-determination . It is about this last one that we are going to talk about throughout this article.


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The theory of self-determination: what does it tell us?

It is called the theory of self-determination to a macro-theory developed mainly by Decí and Ryan, which aims to establish to what extent human behavior is influenced by different factors that affect our motivation to act , with special emphasis on the idea of ​​self-determination or ability to decide voluntarily what and how to do it as a fundamental explanatory element.

The main objective of the theory of self-determination aims to understand human behavior in such a way that such knowledge can be generalized to all situations that human beings of all cultures can encounter, and may affect any sphere, sphere or vital domain.


In this sense, this theory focuses on motivation as the main element to analyze , valuing the existence of an accumulation of energy generated by different human needs that will subsequently acquire a direction or orientation towards the satisfaction of those needs.

It must be taken into account that in this sense they are of great importance the personality and the biological and autobiographical elements of the person in question , the context in which their behavior moves and the concrete situation in which it is carried out, being elements that influence each other and that affect the possible appearance of different types of motivation.

Self-determination would be the degree to which we ourselves voluntarily direct our behavior through increasingly internal forces, being the motivation increasingly appropriate to the will and the desire to perform the behavior instead of being mediated by environmental elements that make the realization of the action necessary. We are active beings that tend to develop , grow and seek and integrate the perceived experience both at the level of external and internal elements, given that all this will allow us now and in the future to have resources to meet our needs. It is important, therefore, both what comes from the environment and what is innate and impulsive.


We are before a theory that integrates and part of conceptions of different psychological paradigms, among which behavioral and humanistic stand out. On the one hand, a search for rigorous and scientific information is maintained that explains the mechanisms by which we direct our behavior towards achieving a motivating goal (in a similar way to the behaviorist) and on the other acquiring the vision of the human being as an active entity and directed towards purposes and goals proper to humanistic psychology.

Also, we must bear in mind that this theory has applicability in almost all areas, since motivation is something necessary for the implementation of any type of activity: from academic training and work to leisure, through the relationships.

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Five major sub-theories

As mentioned above, the theory of self-determination can be identified as a macro-theory aimed at investigating the functioning of motivation with regard to the determination of one's own behavior. This implies that the theory itself is made up of a set of different interrelated subtheories in order to work on the subject of motivation and self-determination. These sub-theories are mainly the five that follow.

1. Theory of basic psychological needs

One of the main theories that make up the theory of self-determination is that of basic psychological needs. These needs refer to psychic constructs that the human being needs to be motivated towards behavior, leaving aside the merely physiological components (such as the need to eat or drink).The different studies carried out within this approach have determined the existence of at least three types of basic psychological needs that explain human behavior : the need for autonomy, the need for self-competence and the need for linkage or relationship.

The first of these, autonomy, refers to the need of the human being (and of other beings) to know themselves or to consider themselves as beings capable of influencing through conduct in their own life or in reality. This need implies that the subject sees his actions as something that has a real and palpable effect, that he is able to exercise his will with a certain control over what he does and what it entails: it is more than anything the need to feel free to choose. It is fundamental in the emergence of a personal identity , and in the cases in which it does not develop fully, behaviors of passivity and dependence may appear as well as sensations of uselessness and hopelessness.

The need to perceive one's own competition is in the background linked to the previous one, in the sense that it is based on the ability to control what happens based on their own actions, but in this case it is centered on the belief that we have enough resources to carry out a behavior. It is the belief that we are capable and the sensation of being skillful , that the action we have chosen to carry out autonomously will be able to be put to good use thanks to our ability and have a certain impact on what happens.

Finally, the need for relationship or bonding is a constant in gregarious beings like the human being: we need to feel part of a group, with which to interact in a positive way and establishing mutually supportive relationships.

2. Theory of causal orientations

Another fundamental element of the theory of self-determination is that of the theory of causal orientations, in which it is intended to elucidate what moves us or in what direction we direct our efforts. In this sense, the theory establishes the existence of three major types of motivation: intrinsic or autonomous, extrinsic or controlled and impersonal or demotivated.

In the case of intrinsic or autonomous motivation, it represents that force that motivates us in such a way that the performance comes from internal forces , carrying out the conduct due to the pleasure of doing it. Part of a time when all the basic needs mentioned above are well resolved, at which time we act only based on our will and choice. It is the kind of motivation that implies a greater degree of self-determination and that is more linked to psychic well-being.

The extrinsic motivation, on the contrary, arises from a lack of satisfaction of some of the psychic or physiological needs which are intended to be replaced by the performance of the behavior. We are facing an action that is carried out because this will allow or facilitate a reduction of a lack status. Usually the behavior is considered as controlled in order to satisfy the need . Although there is some self-determination, this is present to a lesser degree than in intrinsic motivation.

Finally, impersonal motivation or motivation is derived from the feeling of lack of competence and autonomy: we believe that our actions do not predict possible changes and have no effect on reality, not being able to control what happens to us or reality. All needs have been frustrated, something that leads to hopelessness and lack of motivation.

3. Theory of cognitive evaluation

The third of the subteories that make up the theory of self-determination, in this case is worked from the premise that the existence of innate and human interests, receiving events that occur in the medium (whether external or internal) a different assessment at the cognitive level and generating different degrees of motivation.

Participates in the subject's life experience, as well as the history of learning about the consequences and effects of their performance with the environment. These interests are analyzed in order to explain the differences in levels of intrinsic motivation , but also how it affects the extrinsic or what aspects or phenomena favor a decrease in motivation. This interest is also derived from the perception of how the interaction with the world allows or not the attainment of basic needs.

In conclusion, we can determine that the theory of cognitive evaluation states that the main elements that predict our interest in different aspects of reality are the sensation and the attribution of control that we perform, the perceived competence, the orientation of the motivation (if is to get something or not) and the situation or external factors.

4. Theory of organic integration

The theory of organic integration is a proposal that aims to analyze the degree and manner in which different types of extrinsic motivation exist, depending on the degree of internalization or assimilation of the regulation of one's behavior .

This internalization, whose development will gradually generate the ability for motivation to stop relying on external elements and born intrinsic motivation, will emerge throughout the development of the self based on the acquisition of values ​​and norms social. In this sense, four major types of extrinsic motivation can be distinguished according to what type of behavior regulation takes place.

First we have external regulation , in which one acts to obtain a reward or to avoid a harm or punishment being the behavior totally directed and controlled by the outside.

With a slightly more internalized regulation, the extrinsic motivation by introjected regulation occurs when, in spite of the fact that the behavior is still carried out to obtain prizes or to avoid punishments, the administration or evasion of these are given at an internal level, not depending on what external agents carry out.

After it we can find the extrinsic motivation by identified regulation , in the beginning to be given a value of their own to the activities carried out (although they are still carried out by search / avoidance of prizes / punishments).

The fourth and last, very close to the inherent intrinsic regulation of the motivation of the same name but which nevertheless continues to be governed by external elements, is the extrinsic motivation that arises through integrated regulation. In this case, the behavior is seen as positive and favorable for the person and in itself and without assessing rewards or punishments, but still not done because it generates enjoyment for itself.

5. Theory of the content of the goals

Finally, and although different authors do not incorporate it into the theory of self-determination, other of the most relevant theories that have an impact on this is the content theory of goals. In this sense, as in motivation, we find intrinsic and extrinsic goals. The first ones are based on the search for psychological well-being and person development , consisting principally of goals of personal growth, affiliation, health and contribution to the community or generativity.

As regards the extrinsic ones, they are our own goals and aimed at obtaining something from the outside of the person and being dependent on the environment: mainly we find needs for appearance, economic / financial success and fame / social consideration. Now, the fact that a goal is intrinsic or extrinsic does not imply that the motivation that leads to it is necessarily the one that shares its adjective: it is possible to have intrinsic motivation to obtain extrinsic goals or vice versa.

Bibliographic references:

  • Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). The Theory of Self-Determination and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development and Welfare. American Psychologist, 55 (1): 68-78.
  • Stover, J.B., Bruno, F.E., Uriel, F.E. and Liporace, M.F. (2017). Theory of Self-determination: a theoretical revision. Perspectives in psychology, 14 (2).

PhD Thesis Proposal - Design of Persuasive Apps Based on Self-Determination Theory (July 2024).


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