Motivation and Self-determination Theory

This is the first part of a two-part series.  Part 2 is called Steps Toward Intrinsic Motivation.

A friend of mine sees that the success of her work depends on actions taken by others — specifically others over whom she has no organizational control. She works with two different groups, one of which appears to be more motivated to participate than the other. This gives her an unusual opportunity to observe the differences between the two groups and perhaps use what she learns from one to augment the motivation of people in the other.

This situation reminded me of a paper by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci entitled Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. This is a very meaty paper, right up there with Albert Bandura’s paper on Self-efficacy as a source of ideas for me. I’ll try to summarize parts of the article here and perhaps in a subsequent posting. If your curiosity carries you further, you can download this paper for personal use from the Overview of Self-Determination Theory site.

Richard Ryan←Richard Ryan
Edward Deci←Edward Deci

Intrinsic motivation is self-authored and endorsed and leads to more interest, excitement and confidence than motivation based on external rewards or punishments. Intrinsic motivation is generally inherent in humans and will flourish when circumstances permit.

Intrinsic motivation is strongly affected by three psychological needs, each of which is affected by the social context:

  • Competence — Can be increased by optimal level of challenge and effective feedback.Here are links to some musings about effective feedback: Effective Negative Feedback, Effective Positive Feedback, Process Praise versus People Praise.
  • Autonomy — Having an internal locus of control, freedom to determine own behavior. Can be increased by having choice, acknowledgement of feelings, and opportunities for self-direction.Interestingly enough, the authors reference a meta-analysis that confirms “that all expected tangible rewards made contingent on task performance do reliably undermine intrinsic motivation.” (p. 70). I don’t think it is quite as simple as removing all contingent rewards — since there can be an evolution to reach intrinsic motivation that goes through various types of extrinsic motivation. But it may explain the frustration that managers find when rewards do not have exactly the impact they expect.I have another friend who made big difference in the motivation of the people he managed by giving them explicit goals and then leaving it up to them when and how they worked on the goals. That’s a story for another day.
  • Relatedness — Having a sense of security and relatedness. Can be increased by having people around who care about you. This relates to one of the 12 questions that Gallup** finds very associated with high productivity work places: “Someone at Work cares about me as a person.”

Ryan and Deci caution that intrinsic motivation occurs only for activities that have intrinsic interest for the person — there has to be a seed of interest before the social context has an impact. But once the seed is there, the social context can make a big difference.

** For more about the Gallup 12, see

12: The Elements of Great Managing

12 cover


Filed under Motivation, Positive Interventions, Self-efficacy

16 responses to “Motivation and Self-determination Theory

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  7. Steve

    A very useful post 🙂 I am currently looking at Dornyei and of course SDT – but I am hoping to use blogging, google docs, wiki’s and potentially online gaming as a means to facilitate motivation with language learners.

    Keep up the posting!

  8. premkumarj

    This information was very useful to update my knowledge on SDT. I would support those believe in their own self determination to reach the toplevel in life.SD fosters confidence ,courage and will power to do what is desired.

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  16. thanks for the sdt my theoritical framework in my thesis.

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