Self Determination Theory (Definition + Examples)

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Practical Psychology

Think about your goals for the month, the year, or even your life. Which goals are you determined to achieve? What is driving your choices and motivating you to take action?

When you know the answer to these questions, you are likely to have a better hold on how to achieve your goals and how to get to where you want to be in life. We all want to improve our circumstances: we want to have more money, a better job, more friends, or spend more time doing what we love. But the process in which we get from where we are to where we want to depends largely on our self-determination.

What Is Self-Determination Theory in Psychology?

Self-determination theory looks at the ways that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play a role in our self-determination and the fulfillment of three basic human needs. When our basic needs are fulfilled, we are able to achieve psychological growth and optimal well-being. 

What Is Self Determination?

Before we get into the details of actual self-determination theory, I want to define self-determination. Self-determination is the belief that through goal setting and taking the right actions, you can fulfill the destiny that you choose for yourself. It’s the idea that if you want to become a top dog in politics, you can. If you want to be a happier person, you have the ability to reach those goals yourself.

Self-determination is a central concept in positive psychology. If psychologists can help people elevate themselves and fulfill their own destiny, then they can truly make this world a better, safer, and more productive place.

History of Positive Psychology

Theories about self-determination really became popular as psychology made a shift from psychoanalysis and behaviorism to positive and cognitive psychology. Instead of figuring out what was wrong with people and how others could control their behaviors, psychologists began to look at how individuals could improve their situation and become their best selves.

One of the earlier ideas that marked this shift is the idea of Learned Helplessness. Martin Seligmann, known as one of the fathers of positive psychology, observed that dogs in a laboratory setting were only willing to take actions to improve their situation when they believed that they had the ability to do so. If they believed that they were not in control of their own lives, they gave up on simple tasks and allowed themselves to be subjected to annoying (or even tortuous) treatment from researchers.

These ideas also translate to human beings. When we believe that we are in control of our destiny, we are able to grow and move forward on the path toward individual success.

I mention these ideas because they paved the way for Self-Determination Theory. Without this new wave of focusing on the positive aspects of human behavior, motivation, and determination, SDT may not have become the popular and referenced theory that it is today.

Who Created Self Determination Theory?

Positive psychology took center stage in the psychology world in the 1960s when Martin Seligman first started his experiments on dogs at the University of Pennsylvania. During the 1970s, psychologists began to take a closer look at how intrinsic motivation drove human behavior.

In 1975,  Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan published “Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior.” The most well-known version of this book came ten years later. Deci and Ryan have continued to study this theory, even publishing a more updated book on self-determination theory in 2016.

The basic ideas of this theory have not changed drastically, since “Intrinsic Motivation” was first published. As we dive into these ideas, keep in mind that psychology is never set in stone and different perspectives and theories on self-determination may still be accepted in the future.

The Self-Determination Continuum

At the heart of self-determination theory is the motivation that drives us. It’s important to know that psychologists acknowledge two general types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation comes from the outside of the individual. If you are motivated to act by society, rules, the approval of others, or any source that is not your own free will, you are acting based on extrinsic motivation.

This is the type of motivation that shaped operant and classical conditioning. Psychologists believed that humans were motivated by rewards and punishments. By training another person using stickers, food, or validation, we can encourage certain behaviors and discourage others.

Example of Self-Determination Theory (Extrinsic Motivation)

One example of this is grades and higher learning. You may find yourself motivated by the idea that you need to get the As that your teachers want you to get or the allowance that your parents will give you if you score 100%. These factors are likely to shape whether you study as well as the way that you study for your test.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is solely internal. Even if you were isolated on an island with no connection to the outside world, intrinsic motivation would push you to learn new skills and grow as a person. This type of motivation has been the focus of positive and cognitive psychology.

Example of Self-Determination Theory (Intrinsic Motivation)

One can see how intrinsic motivation may be more effective or productive than extrinsic motivation. I’ll use the example of studying and grades to show how; if you are solely motivated by a grade or a score on the test, you may only study “to the test.” You may even look for alternative ways to get the score that is acceptable to outside sources, like cheating on the test or asking someone to take the test for you.

When you are driven by growth and acquiring new skills, you are more likely to dive deeper into the material and understand the subject matter on a more holistic level. You’re not just memorizing facts and figures - you’re engaging with the material in a way that will stick in your brain and even connect to other ideas and subjects outside of what will be on your test.

A Combination of Both

So what does SDT have to stay about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation? While this theory acknowledges that both forms of motivation exist, self-determined people are more likely to be moved by intrinsic motivation than people who are not self-determined.

Of course, our actions are rarely motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation alone. So Deci and Ryan created a continuum that ranges from nonself-determined to self-determined. On the nonself-determined side is amotivation - a lack of motivation altogether. The continuum moves to show different types of extrinsic motivation. Finally, on the self-determined side is intrinsic motivation.

Every decision we make falls somewhere on that line. We may be extrinsically motivated by approval from society or other rewards, but if the action also falls in line with our own interests or inherent satisfaction, it will land on a different part of the continuum from an action that is simply done out of compliance.

What Are the Three Components of Self Determination Theory?

According to SDT, we have three basic needs that determine how often we act more frequently on intrinsic motivation and reach psychological growth. When these needs are fulfilled, we are able to become more self-determined. These needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


Autonomy is the ability to self-govern or choose your own actions. When you feel autonomous, you feel more in control of yourself and your own destiny. Does this sound familiar? Similar to positive psychologist Martin Seligman, Deci and Ryan believed that believing that you have control over your destiny motivated you more to choose actions that brought you closer to your own destiny.

For example, if you believe that the world will never vote you into political office, you are unlikely to do anything to start your campaign. But if you believe that your actions can sway others and put you in the position where you’d like to be, you’re going to act.


Competence is the ability to use or gain a skill. When you feel that you are able to achieve something, you are more likely to take the necessary steps to do so. If you want to free solo a mountain but do not feel competent at weightlifting, climbing or bouldering, you may not think of free soloing as a possibility. But if you believe that you have the ability to grow and master these skills, you are more likely to put this goal on your to-do list and make it happen.


The last need is relatedness. This might sound contradictory, but you feel a sense of belonging to others, you are more likely to want to think, act, and improve for yourself. This idea is similar to another one in psychology: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. By fulfilling the need of belonging, we move one step closer to self-fulfillment.

What Does Self-Determination Theory Say About Behavior Change and Motivation?

Motivation and self-determination are not fixed within someone. If you are feeling amotivated right now, you can search out people, activities, and forms of motivation that will lift you out of your slump, fulfill the needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and bring you closer to self-determination.

Certain types of extrinsic motivation, including validation from our peers, can help us fulfill these needs and allow intrinsic motivation to grow. For example, you may go to a beginner yoga class and feel intimidated that you are not able to do a headstand or even touch your toes. If the teacher or your fellow students allow you to feel this incompetence, you are unlikely to go back to the class and keep practicing. But if the teacher encourages you and lets you know that you are perfect right where you are, you’re more likely to feel competent and comfortable enough to go to a class, even without the skills of the person or people next to you.

You may not feel like you can fulfill your own destiny right now, but with the right goals, support, and understanding of psychology, you can get there!

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2021, May). Self Determination Theory (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from

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