Self-determination Theory: What It Is And What It Proposes

Self-determination theory

The human being is, by definition, an active being: we are continually carrying out a great variety of behaviors in order to stay alive, adapt to the environment or develop 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 environment, in order to act.

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

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Self-determination theory: what does it tell us?

The name self-determination theory is a macrotheory developed mainly by Deci and Ryan which aims to establish to what extent human behavior is influenced by different factors that affect our motivation to actplacing special emphasis on the idea of ​​self-determination or the ability to voluntarily decide what and how to do it as a fundamental explanatory element.

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

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

It must be taken into account that in this sense they are of great importance the personality and biological and autobiographical elements of the person in questionthe context in which their behavior moves and the specific 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, with the motivation becoming more and more typical of the will and the desire to carry out the behavior instead of being mediated by environmental elements. that make it necessary to carry out the action. 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, since all this will allow us now and in the future to have resources to satisfy our needs. It is important, therefore, both what comes to us from the environment and what is innate and what is impulsive.

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We are faced with a theory that integrates and is based on concepts from different psychological paradigms, among which the behavioral and humanistic ones 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 to achieve a motivating goal (in a similar way to the behaviorist one) and on the other acquiring the vision of the human being as an active entity directed towards purposes and goals typical of humanistic psychology.

Likewise, it must be taken into account that this theory has applicability in almost all areas, given that motivation is something necessary for the implementation of any type of activity: from academic training and work to leisure, including activities. relationships.

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Five major subtheories

As we have mentioned previously, self-determination theory can be identified as a macrotheory 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 issue of motivation and self-determination. These subtheories are mainly the five that follow.

1. Theory of basic psychological needs

One of the main theories that make up self-determination theory is that of basic psychological needs. These needs refer to psychological constructs that human beings need to feel motivated towards behavior, leaving aside 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 connection or relationship.

The first of them, autonomy, refers to the need of human beings (and other beings) to know or consider themselves as beings capable of influencing their own life or reality through behavior. This need implies that the subject sees his actions as something that has a real and palpable effect, that he is capable of exercising 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 essential in the emergence of a personal identityand in cases where it is not fully developed, behaviors of passivity and dependence may appear as well as feelings of uselessness and hopelessness.

The need to perceive one’s own competence is fundamentally linked to the previous one, in the sense that it is based on the ability to control what happens based on one’s own actions, but in this case it focuses on the belief that we have sufficient resources to carry out a behavior. It is the belief that we are capable and the feeling of being skilledthat the action that we have chosen to carry out autonomously will be able to be carried out successfully thanks to our ability and have a certain impact on what happens.

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Finally, the need for a relationship or bond is a constant in gregarious beings like humans: we need to feel part of a group, with which to interact in a positive way and establishing relationships of mutual support.

2. Theory of causal orientations

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

In the case of intrinsic or autonomous motivation, this represents that force that motivates us in such a way that the performance comes from internal forces, carrying out the behavior due to the pleasure of doing it. It starts from a moment in which all the basic needs mentioned above are well resolved, a moment in which we act solely based on our will and choice. This is the type of motivation that involves a greater degree of self-determination and is most closely linked to psychological well-being.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, arises from a lack of satisfaction of some of the psychological or physiological needs which are intended to be met by carrying out the behavior. We are faced with an action that is carried out because it will allow or facilitate a reduction of a state of deficiency. Generally the behavior is considered controlled in order to satisfy the need. Although there is some self-determination, it is present to a lesser degree than in intrinsic motivation.

Finally, impersonal motivation or demotivation is that which derives from the feeling of lack of competence and autonomy: we believe that our actions do not predict possible changes and do not have an 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 subtheories that make up the theory of self-determination, in this case it works from the premise that the existence of innate and inherent interests of the human being, receiving the events that occur in the environment (whether external or internal) a different assessment at a cognitive level and generating different degrees of motivation.

The life experience of the subject participates in this, as well as the history of learning regarding the consequences and effects of their actions with the environment. These interests are analyzed in order to explain the differences in the levels of intrinsic motivation., but it is also assessed how it affects the extrinsic or what aspects or phenomena favor a decrease in motivation. This interest also derives from the perception of how interaction with the world allows or does not allow the achievement of basic needs.

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

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4. Organic integration theory

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

This internalization, whose development will gradually generate the ability for motivation to stop depending on external elements and intrinsic motivation to emerge, will emerge throughout the development of the self based on the acquisition of values ​​and norms. social. In this sense, four main types of extrinsic motivation can be distinguished depending on what type of behavioral regulation is carried out.

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

With a slightly more internalized regulation, extrinsic motivation through introjected regulation occurs when, despite the fact that the behavior continues to be carried out to obtain rewards or avoid punishments, the administration or evasion of these occurs at an internal level, not depending on what is carried out by external agents.

Behind it we can find extrinsic motivation due to identified regulation.in which they begin to give their own value to the activities carried out (even though they continue to be carried out in search/avoidance of rewards/punishments).

The fourth and last, very close to the intrinsic regulation of the motivation of the same name but which despite this 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 in itself and without valuing rewards or punishments, but it is still not done because it generates enjoyment for itself.

5. Theory of goal content

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

Regarding the extrinsic ones, they are the own goals aimed at obtaining something from outside 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 us 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 Well-being. American Psychologist, 55 (1): 68-78.
  • Stover, JB, Bruno, FE, Uriel, FE and Liporace, MF (2017). Self-Determination Theory: a theoretical review. Perspectives in Psychology, 14 (2).