Self-Determination Theory of Motivation (Deci & Ryan – 1985)

For many years Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan have been engaged in a program of research on human motivation that has led to and been organized by self-determination theory. In a recent article, McCally (McCally, 2010, p. 19) pointed to the publication of Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Deci & Ryan, 1985) as marking the formal emergence of self-determination theory. Although many of the ideas were published in earlier sources—including Intrinsic Motivation (1975) and The Psychology of Self-Determination (1980) —the 1985 publication of Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior is also listed as the first reference on Deci and Ryan’s own website (SDT.2008, “References”), along with two more recent journal articles (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000).  These three sources, together with the website, were selected as primary sources in the present search for principles of learning found in self-determination theory (SDT).

SDT is a meta-theory that attempts to account for two views of causality regarding human behavior: (a) the view that humans act with agency and intrinsic motivation, and (b) the view that their actions can be determined or influenced by external factors. SDT provides a framework to integrate observed cases of both phenomena:

The primary agenda of self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985b; Ryan & Deci, 2000b) has been to provide an account of the seemingly discrepant viewpoints characterized, on the one hand, by the humanistic, psychoanalytic, and developmental theories that employ an organismic metatheory and, on the other hand, by the behavioral, cognitive, and post-modern theories that do not. In other words, recognizing that there is compelling evidence in favor of human tendencies toward active engagement and development and that there is, as well, manifold indication of fragmentation and conditioned responses, SDT provides a framework that integrates the phenomena illuminated by these discrepant viewpoints. (Ryan & Deci, 2002, p. 5)

The fundamental postulate of SDT is the organismic dialect—a dialectic in which the human organism both acts on internal and external forces, and is vulnerable to those forces. Deci and Ryan (1985) explained it this way:

An organismic theory begins with the assumption of an active organism; it assumes that human beings act on their internal and external environments to be effective and to satisfy the full range of their needs. In the process, behavior is influenced by internal structures that are being continually elaborated and refined to reflect ongoing experiences. The life force or energy for the activity and for the development of the internal structure is what we refer to as intrinsic motivation….

Deci (1980) pointed out, however, that although the human organism is innately active and is inclined toward the development of an internal, unified structure of self, it is also vulnerable to being passive and to developing fractionated structures. These vulnerabilities are the means through which the organism becomes conditioned and through which its psychological functioning becomes rigid. (p. 8)

Although people are generally curious, self-motivated, agentic, and inspired; and striving to learn, to extend themselves, to master new skills, and to apply their talents; it is also true that “the human spirit can be diminished or crushed and that individuals sometimes reject growth and responsibility” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 68). SDT considers the natural tendencies toward growth as requiring “nutriments or supports from the social environment to function effectively” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 262). SDT declares this requirement to be the satisfaction of three innate psychological needs: (a) autonomy, (b) competence, and (c) relatedness.

The details of the SDT framework are set in five mini theories (SDT.2008), the first three of which were presented in 1985 (Deci & Ryan, 1985, pp. 43, 87, 113, 149), with the others added later:

  1. Cognitive evaluation theory (CET) “addresses the effects of social contexts on intrinsic motivation, or how factors such as rewards, interpersonal controls, and ego-involvements impact intrinsic motivation and interest” (SDT.2008, “Cognitive Evaluation Theory”).
  2. Organismic integration theory (OIT) “addresses the topic of extrinsic motivation in its various forms….[including] external regulation, introjection, identification, and integration” (SDT.2008, “Organismic Integration Theory”).
  3. Causality orientations theory (COT) describes three types of causality orientations: the autonomy orientation, the control orientation, and the amotivated orientation (SDT.2008, “Causal Orientations Theory”).
  4. Basic psychological needs theory (BPNT) “argues that psychological well-being and optimal functioning is predicated on autonomy, competence, and relatedness [therefore], contexts that support versus thwart these needs should invariantly impact wellness” (SDT.2008, “Basic Psychological Needs Theory”).
  5. Goal contents theory (GCT) “grows out of the distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic goals and their impact on motivation and wellness” (SDT.2008, “Cognitive Evaluation Theory”).

SDT is not concerned with what causes intrinsic motivation, but rather what elicits and sustains it (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 70). Cognitive evaluation theory explains social contextual effects on intrinsic motivation in terms of the three basic psychological needs. The first is autonomy. “Feelings of competence will not enhance intrinsic motivation unless accompanied by a sense of autonomy” (p. 70). Deci and Ryan (Deci & Ryan, 2000) cited conditions of threat, evaluation, and deadlines as leading to “the undermining of intrinsic motivation, presumably because they also prompted a shift toward a more external perceived locus of causality” (p. 234). In contrast, they cited conditions of choice and acknowledging a person’s inner experience as prompting a perception of an internal locus of causality and, in turn, enhanced intrinsic motivation and augmentation of a person’s confidence in his performance (p. 234).

Deci and Ryan also cited studies demonstrating the importance of the second basic psychological need, competence. Specifically, they cited experiments in which it was shown that positive feedback enhanced intrinsic motivation, and that negative feedback decreased intrinsic motivation:

Events such as positive feedback that signify effectance provide satisfaction of the need for competence, thus enhancing intrinsic motivation, whereas events such as negative feedback that convey ineffectance tend to thwart the need for competence and thus undermine intrinsic motivation. (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 234)

The third basic psychological need, relatedness, is defined by Ryan and Deci (2000) as “the need to feel belongingness and connectedness with others” (p. 73). Although relatedness plays a more distal role than the first two needs (autonomy and competence), it is still a factor in maintaining intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 235). In support of this claim, Deci and Ryan cite a study in which it was found that “when children worked on an interesting activity in the presence of an adult experimenter who ignored their attempts to interact, the children displayed a very low level of intrinsic motivation (Anderson, Manoogian, & Reznick, 1976)” (p. 235). They also noted, however, that “people often engage in intrinsically motivating behaviors (e.g., playing solitaire, hiking) in isolation” (p. 235). They interpreted this to mean that relatedness may not be an important proximal factor, but instead provides a backdrop sense of security to intrinsically motivated activity:

Relational supports may not be necessary as proximal factors in maintaining intrinsic motivation. Instead, a secure relational base appears to provide a needed backdrop—a distal support—for intrinsic motivation, a sense of security that makes the expression of this innate growth tendency more likely and more robust. (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 235)

The second theory of SDT, organismic integration theory, proposes an active, natural process of internalization by which “individuals assimilate and reconstitute formerly external regulations so the individuals can be self-determined while enacting them” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 236). In other words, it is the means through which external motivation becomes internal motivation, to one degree or another:

The real question concerning nonintrinsically motivated practices is how individuals acquire the motivation to carry them out and how this motivation affects ongoing persistence, behavioral quality, and well-being. Whenever a person (be it a parent, teacher, boss, coach, or therapist) attempts to foster certain behaviors in others, the others’ motivation for the behavior can range from amotivation or unwillingness, to passive compliance, to active personal commitment. According to SDT, these different motivations reflect differing degrees to which the value and regulation of the requested behavior have been internalized and integrated. Internalization refers to people’s “taking in” a value or regulation, and integration refers to the further transformation of that regulation into their own so that, subsequently, it will emanate from their sense of self. (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 71)

This continuum of unwillingness, passive compliance, and active personal commitment, is represented visually in a chart that can be found in Ryan and Deci (2000, p. 72). At the far left, the chart depicts a state of amotivation and non-regulation of behavior. This is a state of “lacking the intent to act” (p. 72) in which either no action takes place or people act without intent, just going through the motions. At the far right is a state of completely self-determined behavior, intrinsically motivated and intrinsically regulated. The source of behavior of this type is completely internal, and is regulated by interest, enjoyment, or inherent satisfaction.

What is particularly interesting in this model of motivation is the middle ground of external motivation, internalized in varying degrees. “Unlike some perspectives that view extrinsically motivated behavior as invariantly non-autonomous, SDT proposes that extrinsic motivation can vary greatly in its relative autonomy” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 71). Organismic integration theory therefore proposes that extrinsic motivation may be (a) completely internalized (integrated), (b) mostly internalized (identified), (c) mostly external but partly internalized (introjected), or (d) remain completely external. Some amount of autonomy is present at each level. Extrinsically motivated behaviors that are externally regulated are least autonomous, with behavior being performed only “to satisfy an external demand or reward contingency” (p. 71). This is the type of external regulation used in operant conditioning. Moving to the right are externally motivated behaviors that are introjected.

Introjection involves taking in a regulation but not fully accepting it as one’s own. It is a relatively controlled form of regulation in which behaviors are performed to avoid guilt or anxiety or to attain ego enhancements such as pride. Put differently, introjection represents regulation by contingent self-esteem (Deci and Ryan, 1995, cited in Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 72)

The next type of extrinsically motivated behavior is regulated through identification. Identified regulation is regulation of behavior in which there is conscious acknowledgement of the value of a goal or regulation. Whatever action is taken is made for a reason that is accepted as being personally important, but the regulation itself has not been fully integrated. Hence, this type of regulation is mostly, but not completely, internal. In comparison, the extrinsically motivated behavior with the greatest degree of  autonomy occurs when “regulations are fully assimilated to the self, which means they have been evaluated and brought into congruence with one’s other values and needs” (p. 73). This is integrated regulation. These four types of extrinsic motivation, together with amotivation and intrinsic motivation, make up the framework of organismic integration theory, and provide a visual model for SDT.

Causality orientations theory, the third mini theory of SDT, describes three orientations of causality: (a) autonomy oriented, (b) control oriented, and (c) impersonally oriented. These orientations represent general tendencies, respectively, toward (a) intrinsic motivation and well-integrated extrinsic motivation, (b) external and introjected regulation, and (c) amotivation and lack of intentional action (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 241). According to causality orientations theory, a person’s orientation is predictive of their regulatory styles.

As has already been mentioned, basic psychological needs theory asserts that the elicitation and maintenance of internal motivation is dependent on the satisfaction of three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Satisfaction of these three needs is directly linked to a person’s well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 243). BPNT predicts three accommodations when these needs are not satisfied. First is the development of need substitutes or compensatory motives. Such compensations do not satisfy the basic needs, but provide “some collateral satisfaction” (p. 249). For example, “if people’s need for relatedness is thwarted when they are young, they might compensate by attempting to gain approval or sense of worth by pursuing image-oriented goals, such as accumulating money or material possessions” (p. 249). Second is the development of nonoptimal regulatory styles and motivational orientations. “Social environments that block satisfaction of the need for autonomy promote controlled motivation” (pp. 250-251). Similarly, “environments that also block satisfaction of the needs for competence and relatedness tend to promote amotivation” (p. 251). BPNT assumes that both controlled and amotivational orientations have “negative effects on performance and well-being” and that they are the cause by which “basic needs are further thwarted and negative consequences are compound” (p. 251). The third type of accommodation made when basic needs are not met is the development of “rigid behavior patterns that are as adaptive as possible under the hostile circumstances and that help protect people from the inner hurts resulting from the thwarted needs” (p. 251). The unfortunate side affect of patterns of this type is that they “have the maladaptive features of tending to keep people from dealing with their inner experiences and of tending to persist into new situations which they are not needed and have negative consequences” (p. 251).

The last of the five mini theories of SDT deals with the effects of the contents of goals people pursue and their reasons for pursuing them. In specific, it assumes the distinction made by Kasser and Ryan (1993, 1996, as cited in Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 244) between intrinsic aspirations and extrinsic aspirations. Intrinsic aspirations are “goals such as affiliation, personal growth, and community contributions, which are closely associated with basic need satisfaction” (p. 244). Extrinsic aspirations are goals such as “attaining wealth, fame, and image, which are more related to obtaining contingent approval or external signs of worth, and thus are, on average, expected to be less likely to yield direct need satisfaction and may even distract from it” (p. 244).

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