Self-Determination Theory


The role of psychological needs in self-motivation and self-definition

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … integrated functioning
  • Learner is … an inertial object (requiring motivation)
  • Learning is … moving toward
  • Teaching is … supporting




Included among Motivation TheoriesSelf-Determination Theory  is founded on the assumption that people have psychological needs which serve as the basis for both self-motivation and self-integration. The theory asserts that optimal development is inherent – but not automatic – for all humans. Three universal, innate motivating needs are identified: competence (mastery-oriented), relatedness (other-oriented), and autonomy (determination-oriented). The necessity for social support is acknowledged. Subdiscourses (listed chronologically) include:
  • Cognitive Evaluation Theory (Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, 1970s) – a perspective on how intrinsic motivation is affected by external influences. Cognitive Evaluation Theory asserts that external events that prompt greater self-confidence will enhance intrinsic motivation.
  • Causality Orientations Theory (Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, 1980s) – a perspective on personal motivations organized around three “orientations”: Autonomy (one is interested in and values the activity); Control (one focuses on external rewards); Impersonal/Amotivated (one is anxious about one’s competence)
  • Basic Psychological Needs Theory (Richard Ryan, Edward Deci, 1990s) – a perspective that posits that competence, autonomy, and relatedness are innate and universal needs for health and well-being. The theory suggests there are clear and debilitating consequences if any of these needs are unmet.
  • Relationship Motivation Theory (Richard Ryan, Edward Deci, 1990s) – the suggestion that desirable interpersonal relationships satisfy all three basic psychological needs (see Basic Psychological Needs Theory, above), especially relatedness
  • Self-Concordance Model (Kennon Sheldon, Andrew Elliot, 1990s) – the perspective that one sets and pursues goals because they are consistent with one’s values and beliefs (vs. for extrinsic rewards or because of others’ expectations)
  • Goal Contents Theory (Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, 2000s) – a differentiation among goals in relation to psychological needs, suggesting that “intrinsic goals” (e.g., community building, personal growth) contribute to well-being more than “extrinsic goals (e.g., wealth, fame)
  • Organismic Integration Theory (Richard Ryan, Edward Deci, 2000s) – interpreting self-determination and autonomy in terms of more Intrinsic Motivations (vs. Extrinsic Motivations). Subtypes of Extrinsic Motivation are identified and suggested to exist along a continuum that culminates in “integration” – that is, internalized and in harmony with one’s values and goals.

Self-Determination Theory specifies five forms of motivation, starting with a more nuanced treatment of Behaviorisms’ focus on Extrinsic Motivation:

  • Extrinsic Motivation – motivating influences that come from outside the learner. Self-Determination Theoryidentifies three types, according to their degree of internalization:
    • External Motivation – expected Rewards and avoided Punishments (see Operant Conditioning). Externally motivated behaviors are not regarded as internalized.
    • Introjected Motivation – when an aspect of oneself motivates another aspect to act (e.g., to avoid a negative self-image). Behaviors motivated this way are regarded as partially internalized.
    • Identified Motivation – when an extrinsically motivated behavior is fully internalized
  • Intrinsic Motivation – motivations rooted in interest or pleasure of engaging
  • Amotivation – a mode of acting that lacks a clear intention or purpose, often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness
Additional constructs and emphases associated with Self-Determination Theory include:
  • Authentic Inner Compass (Avi Assor, 2010s) – a hypothesized action-guiding schema that derives from of one’s values and goals, that is anchored in identifications with social groups and cultural interpretations, and that develops gradually through life
  • Motivated Learning – a phrase that can technically be applied across contexts and motivations, but that is most often used to refer to an individual’s interests in actually developing understandings and skills (vs. finish assignments, pass tests, earn credentials, etc.). Constructs associated with Motivated Learning include:
    • Actualizing Tendency – a type of motivation that, drawing on the highest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is oriented toward “Self-Actualization” – that is, growth, self-fulfilment, autonomy, and the realization of one’s potential
    • Effectance Motivation (Mastery Motivation) – a type of motivation oriented by the desire to engage fully with the environment, often manifesting as a tendency to investigate topics and issues and to master concepts and skills
    • Task Involvement – a state of motivation in which one is focused on the task demands (rather than oneself)
  • Unmotivated Learning – a phrase that, most often, describes the attitude of a student whose efforts are oriented toward finishing assignments, passing tests, earning credentials, etc. (as opposed to actually learning the content), and so any learning that occurs is incidental. Constructs associated with Unmotivated Learning include:
    • Achievement Motivation – a type of motivation that is focused on success at challenging tasks. Subtypes include:
      • Fear of Failure (Academic Anxiety; Academic Fear) – a state of motivation that is focused on avoiding the imagined negative consequences of failing
      • Hope for Success – a state of motivation that is framed by one’s sense of the likelihood of success
    • Ego-Involvement – a state of motivation that is preoccupied with others’ perceptions and thus focused on looking capable and intelligent (or, at least, avoiding looking incompetent or stupid)


Self-Determination Theory might be characterized as a “transitional theory” – a perspective that was articulated as Behaviorisms were waning. Self-Determination Theory avoided the externalist foci of the former, but it was still caught in the wake of motivation-focused theories. One thus sees very different emphases (shifting away from those of Behaviorisms and toward those of, e.g., Embodiment Discourses), but a strongly similar cause–effect logic of earlier theories (vs. the emergentist dynamics of more recent theories).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Edward Deci; Richard Ryan

Status as a Theory of Learning

Self-Determination Theory is theory of motivation and identity, both of which figure into what and how one learns.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Self-Determination Theory is not a theory of teaching – and offers little advice, apart from flagging the obligation of the teacher to support the learner’s development toward self-determination.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Little of the literature around Self-Determination Theory includes critical considerations of its grounding metaphors and core assumptions. Empirical support of the theory is often piecemeal – that is, offering support for one or another aspect, but rarely of the theory in its entirety. On that detail, some surrounding and competing literatures offer alternative and more-encompassing theories to explain the same phenomena, frequently including evidence that challenge Self-Determination Theory (or its aspects or subdiscourses).


  • Actualizing Tendency
  • Amotivation
  • Authentic Inner Compass
  • Basic Psychological Needs Theory
  • Causality Orientations Theory
  • Cognitive Evaluation Theory
  • Effectance Motivation (Mastery Motivation)
  • Ego Involvement
  • External Motivation
  • Extrinsic Motivation
  • Fear of Failure (Academic Anxiety; Academic Fear)
  • Goal Contents Theory
  • Hope for Success
  • Identified Motivation
  • Intrinsic Motivation
  • Introjected Motivation
  • Motivated Learning
  • Organismic Integration Theory
  • Relationship Motivation Theory
  • Self-Concordance Model
  • Task Involvement
  • Unmotivated Learning

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Self-Determination Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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