Self-Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan)

Summary: Self-Determination Theory is a theory of motivation and personality that addresses three universal, innate and psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness.

Originators: Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, psychologists at the University of Rochester.

Key Terms: motivation, competence, autonomy, relatedness

Self-Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan)

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is an important theory of motivation that addresses issues of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation[1][2][3]. People have innate psychological needs:

  • Competence
  • Relatedness
  • Autonomy

If these universal needs are met, the theory argues that people will function and grow optimally.  To actualize their inherent potential, the social environment needs to nurture these needs.

Seek to control the outcome and experience mastery.

Is the universal want to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others.

Is the universal urge to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self; however, Deci and Vansteenkiste note this does not mean to be independent of others[4].

Motivation has often been grouped into two main types: extrinsic and intrinsic.  With extrinsic motivation, a person tends to do a task or activity mainly because doing so will yield some kind of reward or benefit upon completion.  Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is characterized by doing something purely because of enjoyment or fun.

Deci, Lens and Vansteenkiste (2006) conducted a study that demonstrated intrinsic goal framing (compared to to extrinsic goal framing and no-goal framing) produced deeper engagement in learning activities, better conceptual learning, and higher persistence at learning activities[4].

For more information, we recommend the following additional reading:

  • Edward Deci’s Book: Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.  Extremely interesting book, with a strong basis in empirical research.  Even so, the book is very easy to read, with several case studies that a layman can easily understand.  Highly recommended.

  • Daniel Pink’s book: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  An extremely popular book that describes three elements to intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Also includes a Toolkit section with strategies for individuals, companies, tips on compensation, suggestions for education, etc.



  1. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.American psychologist, 55(1), 68.
  2. Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self?determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational behavior, 26(4), 331-362.
  3. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. University Rochester Press.
  4. Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Deci, E. L. (2006). Intrinsic versus extrinsic goal contents in self-determination theory: Another look at the quality of academic motivation. Educational psychologist, 41(1), 19-31.

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Please cite this article as: J L, "Self-Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan)," in Learning Theories, July 16, 2014,