Self-Determination Theory: Why We Need Autonomy


Self-determination is often talked about in the speeches of successful people who passed away long ago. Traditionally, it is not only associated with diplomacies and state politics but also has a psychological and personal relevance due to its ability to control one’s life. 

Self-determination theory (or SDT) is the process of making your own choices which is an integral part of psychological well-being because people love to have control of their lives. Besides this, SDT is vital for anyone determined to keep their life on track.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash - About Self-Determination
Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

What Is The Self-Determination Theory?

SDT is a theory concerning human personality and motivation that directly connects with their innate growth potential and psychological needs. The theory states that there are two types of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic, and these two play a vital role in shaping individuals and their behavior. 

The SDT stems from Deci and Ryan’s work on motivation in the 1970s and 1980s, but their work didn’t stop and has continually grown. According to Deci and Ryan’s research in 1985, extrinsic motivation complies an individual to behave in a certain way driven by external factors and results in external dividends. For example, employee rewards, accolades, grading system, the admiration you receive from others, etc. 

Contrary to this, intrinsic motivation is innate due to a drive within, which compels an individual to behave in a certain way. It includes our values, morals, and interests. You might wonder whether extrinsic and intrinsic motivation work diametrically- intrinsic motivation works with your inner perfectionism. In contrast, extrinsic motivation works towards earning approval and acceptance from others. There is a significant distinction between both types because SDT differentiates between controlled and autonomous motivation.

Autonomous motivation comes internally but includes extrinsic motivation for individuals who identify values and how it affects their sense of self. Controlled inspiration comes from external sources, and it’s a type of motivation where an individual behaves in a certain way to receive rewards and avoid punishment. 

Autonomous motivation makes an individual feel independent and self-directed. When they’re driven by controlled motivation, they’re under pressure to feel a certain way, leaving them with zero autonomy.

Self-Determination and Goals

SDT impacts an individual’s goals and his urge to strive for them. The theory posits that not only is goal-setting a critical way to satisfy needs and also for well-being, the whole process of goals and why someone strives for them is equally essential for well-being. 

A significant predictor of well-being outcomes stems from how autonomous the goal-striving is versus controlled. 

In easy words, the more independently we are allowed to pursue our goals- in our way- the more satisfied and successful we will be compared to a strict and controlled manner. Even when we are looking for extrinsic rewards like fame and wealth, we are more satisfied when we are allowed to seek them autonomously with our methods and ways. 

More research on SDT and goals has confirmed the connection between success and independence. It has also supplemented the idea that success is more evident when motivation is intrinsic and aims to satisfy our needs. Success is also apparent when surrounded by empaths and supportive people instead of controlling ones.

SDT in Special Education and Disability

SDT has significant relevance to education because there is more possibility of students learning and succeeding when there is intrinsic motivation and need for competence rather than extrinsic motivation for the grading system from parents and teachers.

SDT has double the benefits for children with disabilities and in special education. Such children are always struggling for autonomy because decisions are taken for them as they don’t have the physical or intellectual ability to be completely autonomous. Their disability hampers their efforts to master whatever they do and the knowledge they seek. This, in turn, interferes with their need for proficiency. People with physical and mental disabilities have difficulty connecting with their peers, and this deficiency sheds light on why students with disabilities need to have a sense of self-determination. 

These people may not be able to convey and satisfy their needs accurately, but special education students can have a sense of self-determination in many other ways. For example, the following skills can help enhance a student’s self-determination:

  1. Communication skills
  2. Self-awareness
  3. Goal setting
  4. Goal attainment
  5. Decision making
  6. Ability to celebrate success and learn from mistakes
  7. Self-reflection

When the skills mentioned above are enhanced in students with disabilities, they have shown positive results, increasing their chances of employment and living independently within their community.

Self-Determination and Motivation at Work

SDT has some proven insights about motivation at work. There are many theories about motivation at work, but SDT is unique in that it focuses relatively on an autonomous basis versus controlled motivation.

The total amount of motivation is a vital factor, but there is more weightage to intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation. A manager’s autonomous motivational support leads to a positive relationship with his subordinates, which yields better results. Hence, a link has been established between managerial and subordinate autonomy, organizational commitment, and performance. 

SDT has impacted workplace cultures and come up with vital applications, which are:

  • Employers should exercise caution with extrinsic rewards because too few of them may leave employees feeling unappreciated, unrecognized, or compensated, but too many may impede intrinsic motivation. 
  • Organizations should support their employees if they seek satisfaction and autonomy. This can develop their confidence and competence and lead to happier workplaces with better organizational results. 
  • When employees higher up in the anarchy are given the necessary autonomy, they reciprocate the same autonomy down the funnel to their subordinates which exhibits better organizational performance.
  • Good leadership will give employees autonomy to conceive and regulate their goals. This practice is far more encouraging and motivating for employees than the goals assigned by the managers. 

SDT in Social Work

Every person has a right to pursue their direction and make their own decisions. This concept is also the core of SDT and serves as a foundation stone in social work. Although self-determination is everyone’s right, the disadvantaged and marginalized find it challenging to determine their self-determination.

Social workers must respect and facilitate their client’s self-determination rights to identify and clarify their goals. This requires constant commitment to let clients make their autonomous decisions with complete support from the social worker instead of direction and control. Social workers should also beware of their values so they may not influence their clients toward something they never chose for themselves.

SDT in Sports

SDT has proven equally fruitful in sports, both in participation and achievement. Intrinsic motivation has far-reaching effects on sports performance in terms of goal attainment compared to extrinsic rewards. 

Players who are not motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic factors soon drop out of their teams. Those extrinsically motivated are low in their need for satisfaction and autonomy. Those who are autonomously motivated are more likely, to stick to their sports and enter the flow state. They also demonstrate higher competence and psychological well-being. When such players receive autonomous motivation from others, it also increases their motivation. 

Just like self-determination in other contexts, those with a higher sense of it adhere to their goals and eventually achieve them.

SDT in Healthcare and Nursing

Similar to the essence of SDT in educational settings, it is equally significant for patients and practitioners in health care settings. 

A healthcare professional’s self-determination boosts his autonomy, encouraging him to engage in healthier activities. This behavior also enhances his mindfulness. Similar is the case with patients because when they feel they have little to no control over their lives and aren’t supported by health care professionals in making decisions for themselves, they lose interest in their wellness and struggle to get their needs met, which worsens their health.

If healthcare professionals are interested in promoting healthy behavior outside the examination room, they should keep these points in mind while interacting with patients.

How to Promote and Develop Self-determination Skills

Self-determination is a skill not taught by others, making it tricky to learn, teach, or encourage others. However, some pointers can help people who want to promote, develop and nurture their self-determination.

  • Develop their self-awareness and self-knowledge
  • Develop their ability to set goals
  • Sharpen their problem-solving skills
  • Sharpen decision-making skills
  • Learn to stand up for themselves
  • Learn to establish action plans and achieve the goals
  • Learn to self-manage
  • Learn to self-regulate

Final Word

Self-determination theory is a great theory to develop an understanding of yourself, even if you are in neither of the service/helping industries mentioned above. The real value for an individual lies in understanding himself better when he knows his core values and intrinsic goals. This way, people are more likely to make better choices that satisfy their potential rather than working for extrinsic rewards. 

Bruno Tavares
Bruno Tavares
My goal is to provide my readers with valuable information and insights that they can use to make the most of their lives.