About the Theory

Meta-Theory: The Organismic Viewpoint
Formal Theory: SDT’s 5 Mini-Theories
Other Topics of Interest



People are centrally concerned with motivation -- how to move themselves or others to act. Everywhere, parents, teachers, coaches, and managers struggle with how to motivate those that they mentor, and individuals struggle to find energy, mobilize effort and persist at the tasks of life and work. People are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them.  Yet just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values.  These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless they can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts. The interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature is the territory of Self-Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) represents a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. SDT articulates a meta-theory for framing motivational studies, a formal theory that defines intrinsic and varied extrinsic sources of motivation, and a description of the respective roles of intrinsic and types of extrinsic motivation in cognitive and social development and in individual differences. Perhaps more importantly SDT propositions also focus on how social and cultural factors facilitate or undermine people’s sense of volition and initiative, in addition to their well-being and the quality of their performance.  Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity. In addition SDT proposes that the degree to which any of these three psychological needs is unsupported or thwarted within a social context will have a robust detrimental impact on wellness in that setting.

The dynamics of psychological need support and need thwarting have been studied within families, classrooms, teams, organizations, clinics, and cultures using specific propositions detailed within SDT. The SDT framework thus has both broad and behavior-specific implications for understanding practices and structures that enhance versus diminish need satisfaction and the full functioning that follows from it. These many implications are best revealed by the varied papers listed on this website, which range from basic research on motivational micro-processes to applied clinical trials aiming at population outcomes.

Meta-Theory: The Organismic Viewpoint

SDT is an organismic dialectical approach. It begins with the assumption that people are active organisms, with evolved tendencies toward growing, mastering ambient challenges, and integrating new experiences into a coherent sense of self. These natural developmental tendencies do not, however, operate automatically, but instead require ongoing social nutriments and supports. That is, the social context can either support or thwart the natural tendencies toward active engagement and psychological growth, or it can catalyze lack of integration, defense, and fulfillment of need-substitutes. Thus, it is the dialectic between the active organism and the social context that is the basis for SDT's predictions about behavior, experience, and development.

Within SDT, the nutriments for healthy development and functioning are specified using the concept of basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. To the extent that the needs are ongoingly satisfied people will develop and function effectively and experience wellness, but to the extent that they are thwarted, people more likely evidence ill-being and non-optimal functioning. The darker sides of human behavior and experience, such as certain types of psychopathology, prejudice, and aggression are understood in terms of reactions to basic needs having been thwarted, either developmentally or proximally.

Formal Theory: SDT’s Five Mini-Theories

Formally SDT comprises five mini-theories, each of which was developed to explain a set of motivationally based phenomena that emerged from laboratory and field research. Each, therefore, addresses one facet of motivation or personality functioning.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) concerns intrinsic motivation, motivation that is based on the satisfactions of behaving “for its own sake.”  Prototypes of intrinsic motivation are children’s exploration and play, but intrinsic motivation is a lifelong creative wellspring. CET specifically 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. CET highlights the critical roles played by competence and autonomy supports in fostering intrinsic motivation, which is critical in education, arts, sport, and many other domains.

The second mini-theory, Organismic Integration Theory (OIT), addresses the topic of extrinsic motivation in its various forms, with their properties, determinants, and consequences. Broadly speaking extrinsic motivation is behavior that is instrumental—that aims toward outcomes extrinsic to the behavior itself. Yet there are distinct forms of instrumentality, which include external regulation, introjection, identification, and integration. These subtypes of extrinsic motivation are seen as falling along a continuum of internalization. The more internalized the extrinsic motivation the more autonomous the person will be when enacting the behaviors. OIT is further concerned with social contexts that enhance or forestall internalization—that is, with what conduces toward people either resisting, partially adopting, or deeply internalizing values, goals, or belief systems. OIT particularly highlights supports for autonomy and relatedness as critical to internalization.

Causality Orientations Theory (COT), the third mini-theory, describes individual differences in people's tendencies to orient toward environments and regulate behavior in various ways. COT describes and assesses three types of causality orientations: the autonomy orientation in which persons act out of interest in and valuing of what is occurring; the control orientation in which the focus is on rewards, gains, and approval; and the impersonal or amotivated orientation characterized by anxiety concerning competence.

Fourth, Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) elaborates the concept of evolved psychological needs and their relations to psychological health and well-being. 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. The theory argues that all three needs are essential and that if any is thwarted there will be distinct functional costs. Because basic needs are universal aspects of functioning, BPNT looks at cross-developmental and cross-cultural settings for validation and refinements.

The fifth mini-theory, Goal Contents Theory (GCT), grows out of the distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic goals and their impact on motivation and wellness. Goals are seen as differentially affording basic need satisfactions and are thus differentially associated with well-being. Extrinsic goals such as financial success, appearance, and popularity/fame have been specifically contrasted with intrinsic goals such as community, close relationships, and personal growth, with the former more likely associated with lower wellness and greater ill-being.

Other Topics of Interest

As SDT has expanded both in terms of breadth and depth, both theoretical developments and empirical findings have led SDT researchers to examine a plethora of processes and phenomena integral to personality growth, effective functioning, and wellness. For example, SDT research has focused on the role of mindfulness as a foundation for autonomous regulation of behavior, leading to both refined measurement and theorizing about awareness.  The study of facilitating conditions for intrinsic motivation led to a theory and measurement strategy regarding vitality, an indicator of both mental and physical wellness. Work on vitality also uncovered the remarkable positive impact of the experience of nature on well-being. Some research within SDT has more closely examined the forms personal passions can take, with individuals being obsessive or harmonious as a function of internalization processes. And cross-cultural tests of SDT have led to an increased understanding of how economic and cultural forms impact the invariant aspects of human nature. Research on wellness has also led to new theory and research on the assessment of well-being itself, including the distinction between hedonic and eudaimonic forms of living.  Specific topics such as autonomy versus controlled motivation has led to greater understanding of internalized control such as ego-involvement and contingent self-esteem and of the differences between them and autonomous self-regulation. Indeed these few examples supply just a taste of how the generative framework of SDT has enhanced research on a variety of processes of interest to the field.


In addition to formal theory development, research has applied SDT in many domains including education, organizations, sport and physical activity, religion, health and medicine, parenting, virtual environments and media, close relationships, and psychotherapy. Across these domains research has looked at how controlling versus autonomy-supportive environments impact functioning and wellness, as well as performance and persistence. In addition, supports for relatedness and competence are seen as interactive with volitional supports in fostering engagement and value within specific settings, and within domains of activity. This body of applied research has led to considerable specification of techniques, including goal structures and ways of communicating that have proven effective at promoting maintained, volitional motivation.

The varied articles on this website demonstrate the many types of inquiry associated with the SDT framework, as well as its generative capacity with respect to practical issues in human organizations of all kinds. Relevant research reports and theoretical discussion are listed in the Publications section, organized by topic.

By focusing on the fundamental psychological tendencies toward intrinsic motivation and integration, SDT occupies a unique position in psychology, as it addresses not only the central questions of why people do what they do, but also the costs and benefits of various ways of socially regulating or promoting behavior. Overviews of the theory can be found in Ryan and Deci (2000) and in Deci and Ryan (1985, 2000), as well as numerousother articles and chapters identified on this website.



Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

New Diplomatic Push to End Civil War in Syria
Baz Ratner/Reuters
A United Nations base in the Golan Heights, where four peacekeepers were abducted by Syrian insurgents on Tuesday.
Published: May 8, 2013

ROME — As new reports of violence flowed from Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned leaders in Europe and the Middle East on Wednesday to lay the groundwork for a conference between rebels and the Syrian government, sponsored by the United States and Russia, that he hoped would begin within a month.

Syrian Refugee Crisis Growing
VIDEO FEATURE: GRAPHIC CONTENT: Rebel Fighters Hole Up in Besieged Town of Qusayr
GRAPHIC: An Arms Pipeline to the Syrian Rebels

A Lost Generation: Young Syrian Refugees Struggle to Survive (May 9, 2013)
U.S. Fears Russia May Sell Air-Defense System to Syria (May 9, 2013)
U.S. and Russia Plan Conference Aimed at Ending Syrian War (May 8, 2013)
Hezbollah Takes Risks by Fighting Rebels in Syria (May 8, 2013)
Questions and Answers on Syria and the U.S. (May 7, 2013)
World Twitter Logo.
Connect With Us on Twitter
Follow @nytimesworld for international breaking news and headlines.
Twitter List: Reporters and Editors
Mr. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, announced a new diplomatic effort to end the two-year-old Syrian conflict after intense discussions on Tuesday in Moscow. Mr. Kerry then flew to Rome, where aides said that on Thursday he would announce a 25 percent increase in American humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians whose lives have been upended by the crisis. The additional aid, according to a State Department statement, would bring the American total to about $510 million.

The American ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, who accompanied Mr. Kerry during his talks in Moscow, flew to Istanbul to press representatives of the Syrian opposition to agree to talks with an envoy of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. There were initial indications, at least, that both sides were not opposed to the idea.

Syria’s official news agency, SANA, reported it with the headline “Lavrov, Kerry: Negotiations Are Vital Tool to Reach Settlement.”

The main political opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said in a statement that it welcomed “all international efforts calling for a political solution, which will achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people for a democratic state that begins with the removal of the Assad regime.” But the statement also said: “It is important to note that the Assad regime rejected all initiatives that have been presented thus far to resolve the crisis.”

The special Syria peace envoy from the Arab League and the United Nations, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is expected to resign in frustration over his failed efforts to make any headway, issued a statement welcoming the American-Russian proposal on Syria, calling it “the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time.”

It remains uncertain whether the two sides in an increasingly brutal civil war will even agree to substantive talks, but Russia’s support for a transitional government — which Mr. Lavrov suggested would not include Mr. Assad — raised the hopes of American officials.

Mr. Lavrov, whose government has been Mr. Assad’s primary foreign backer, spoke with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, before the agreement was announced in Moscow after extended meetings that Mr. Kerry had held with President Vladimir V. Putin and Mr. Lavrov.

“I think we, hopefully, found a cooperative way forward to maybe try — I can’t guarantee you can — but try to bring people together to deal effectively with Syria and hopefully end bloodshed and see if there isn’t a way to find a way forward,” Mr. Kerry told staff members at the American Embassy in Moscow on Wednesday. He did not mention concerns expressed later Wednesday by American officials that Russia is planning to sell a sophisticated air defense system to Syria.

The Obama administration has not reversed its demand that Mr. Assad resign, but the proposal Mr. Kerry negotiated with the Russians in effect accepts the premise that Mr. Assad’s government would at least have a say in negotiations, if they begin, just as Russia accepted that Mr. Assad would most likely not be in power if an agreement is reached on a transitional government.

Mr. Kerry spoke Wednesday with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and the foreign minister of Qatar, among others. On Thursday, he is to meet in Rome with Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh of Jordan. Aides to Mr. Kerry said he would officially announce the increased aid, which includes a substantial chunk for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

The intensified diplomacy took place against a backdrop of new fighting in Syria, with conflicting reports that a sheik who is the top leader of the Nusra Front, a jihadist insurgent group that officially aligned itself with Al Qaeda last month, and which has been blacklisted by the United States, may have been wounded in a bombing by Syrian forces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain that has a network of contacts inside Syria, said the Nusra leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, was one of several fighters believed to have been wounded in the bombing. But in a Facebook posting in Arabic, a Nusra Front spokesman said, “The sheik is O.K., thanking God.”

Anti-Assad groups also reported that militants from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group that is an ally of Mr. Assad, had committed a massacre outside the Syrian town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border. That area has been riven for weeks by sectarian clashes between rebels from Syria’s Sunni majority and forces loyal to Mr. Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The Local Coordinating Committees, which supports the uprising against Mr. Assad, said Hezbollah fighters in the Qusayr area “claimed the lives of 30 martyrs, most of them children and women, after Hezbollah forces killed them while they were fleeing the city and kidnapped their bodies.”

Elsewhere in Syria on Wednesday, negotiations were under way aimed at freeing four United Nations peacekeepers abducted on Tuesday by Syrian insurgents in the disputed Golan Heights region between Israel and Syria.

The Syrian government said it was resolving a shutdown of Internet and phone service in the country that had started late Tuesday. SANA attributed the problem to a “malfunction in an optic cable.”

Foreign monitors of global Internet traffic said Tuesday that the shutdown appeared to have been an intentional action by the Syrian government.

Steven Lee Myers reported from Rome, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Anne Barnard, Hania Mourtada and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.
Wait while more posts are being loaded