Self-Determination Theory and Its Implications

10 Oct

The Self-Determination Theory of Deci and Ryan [1, 2] posits three basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—and claims that behavior change interventions that meet those needs will be more effective than those that thwart them.  In this post, I’ll review the theory and some possible misinterpretations of it, and discuss potential implications for social approaches to behavior change.

SDT’s Three Basic Needs

The theory posits three basic psychological needs. It does not claim that all action (including health behavior change) is caused by a drive to meet these needs. The claim is slightly more modest, that satisfaction of these needs is a pre-requisite for motivated behavior. But the implication is the same for designing behavior change interventions: make sure these needs are met.

The first psychological need is for autonomy. “Autonomy refers to volition—the organismic desire to self-organize experience and behavior and to have activity be concordant with one’s integrated sense of self feel competent.” [2] It’s important to note that this concept is often confused with independence or individualism, but is not the same in their usage. It is quite possible to autonomously choose to go along with the group or put the family’s needs ahead of one’s own individual needs.

A synonym for autonomy in the psychology literature is “internal locus of causality”. However, an apparently similar term, “internal locus of control”, means something quite different. Locus of causality is internal if you want to do something to try to affect some outcome. Locus of control is internal if you think your actions can affect the outcome. You might, of your own volition, want to lose weight (internal locus of causality) but think that weight loss is determined by genetics and environment not by your own choices (external locus control). Or, you might not personally care about losing weight but do it anyway to get a discount on health insurance (external locus of causality) while believing that your own diet and exercise actions will lead to weight loss (internal locus of control). By the way, in a related concept, you have high self-efficacy if you have internal locus of control and you think you can get yourself to do the actions that you think can affect the outcome.

The competency need is much more straight-forward: people need to feel like they are able to take effective actions that meet their needs.  Relatedness refers to the desire to feel connected to others—to love and care, and to be loved and cared for. (The theorizing and evidence for a need for relatedness, and the impacts of its absence, is much weaker than for the other two needs, but it sounds good and is part of the theory so I’m including it here.)

Intrinsic (to the task) vs. Extrinsic Motivators

As shown in the figure below, taken from [1], the theory first distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for tasks/actions. Intrinsically motivated actions are ones that inherently interesting, independent of any outcomes they produce, such as tasks that are novel or challenging, actions that engage curiosity, or those that expose us to beautiful sights and sounds. Extrinsic motivations are anything that involves the valuing of outcomes of actions. Thus, exercising because you like the feel of the wind in your face is an intrinsic motivation but exercising because it will help you sleep better tonight, or lose weight in the long term, would be extrinsic motivators.

Note that this is a much more restrictive definition than is sometimes used in popular discourse or by other fields. For example, economists would typically define the intrinsic/extrinsic definition in terms of motivators that are internal or external to the individual. Exercising because it helps you sleep better or lose weight would be labeled “intrinsic motivations” by economists (but not psychologists); the money you put at stake on Stickk.com would be an extrinsic motivator even for economists. For this post, I will stick with the more restrictive psychologists’ definition.

There’s a lot of evidence that external rewards can reduce intrinsic motivations. In lab studies, people who have been rewarded for doing a task do less of the task when the payment is removed.

The Autonomy Continuum for Extrinsic Motivations

But it is the extrinsically motivated tasks that are of greater interest for our purposes. These vary on a continuum in terms of how autonomous the locus of causality is. At one extreme are the external locus of causality, tasks that people do just for the rewards or to avoid punishments. Somewhat less, but still external, are those where the rewards and punishments are introjected. For example, rewards include ego enhancements such as pride and punishments include guilt and shame.  This introjected regulation is administered by the individual but still perceived as coming from the outside.

The more internal end of the spectrum for locus of causality occurs when the individual consciously values, for his or her own reasons, the actions or the goals they are aimed at. The theory distinguishes between two versions of this. Identification occurs when the actions or goals are valued. Integration occurs when they have been integrated, brought into congruence with other aspects of the self, other things that the individual values.

The theory argues, with some empirical support from controlled studies, that when people do things because of external or introjected regulation, they do it less and less well than when they do it because of identified or integrated regulation. For example, in studies of weight loss, adherence to the prescribed regimen was higher when people had more autonomous motivations. The important point here is that, even when people value the ends, the outcomes, and do not find the actions themselves to be intrinsically motivating, they can internalize the value of them and thus autonomously want to undertake the actions.

And, of course, the theory proposes that the three basic needs will affect the internalization process. They claim [1, p. 73-74], however, that external rewards or punishment plus an experience of competence can lead to external regulation. An environment where significant others model, endorse, or encourage an action can yield introjected regulation. To get the more internal locus of causality, however, requires an experience of autonomy during the internalization process. This suggests, in particular, that external rewards and punishments, if experienced as controlling, will interfere with developing an internal locus of control or autonomous motivation for the actions.

Implications/Questions for social approaches

So what does all this mean for approaches to health behavior change that rely on social elements such social proof that others value the behavior change, accountability to others for completing goals, competitions, and social comparisons?

At an abstract level, it suggests some criteria for evaluating and design ideas. For any design idea, as whether it supports or interferes with autonomy, competence, or relatedness, with a special focus on autonomy.

It seems dangerous to make more blanket statements. For example, a naïve interpretation of the theory might suggest a rule like, “don’t use external motivators, including social motivators, because they will interfere with autonomy.” But we know that many people are motivated by the accountability of group goals, as confirmed in the empirical results reported for the ActiveU program previously in this blog. And we know that many people are motivated by competition with others.

In fact, according to the theory, external social motivators will not necessarily interfere with autonomy. Even something like the benefits that will accrue to someone else can be identified and integrated. For example, I rode a motor scooter for about a year, before I had kids. I don’t anymore. I wouldn’t. I’ve integrated it as part of my identity as a good father that I shouldn’t take that unnecessary risk.

Moreover, some social motivators may enhance relatedness. Being on a team enhance a sense of togetherness. A friend or family member reminding me to take my medications also reminds me that they care about me. Competing with friends can give us a common reference point for discussion and teasing and thus bring us closer together.

Thus, the key is to focus not on whether inspirations, rewards, and punishments come from inside the self or outside. The key is to focus on whether they are experienced as autonomous or not, and whether they enhance feelings of competence and relatedness.

Citations

[1] Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. Ryan and Deci. January 2000. American Psychologist, 65(1) 68-78.

[2] Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan (2000): The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior, Psychological Inquiry, 11:4, 227-268.

Advertisements

One Response to “Self-Determination Theory and Its Implications”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Intrinsic & extrinsic | Pearltrees - April 12, 2012

    […] As shown in the figure below, taken from [1], the theory first distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for tasks/actions. Intrinsically motivated actions are ones that inherently interesting, independent of any outcomes they produce, such as tasks that are novel or challenging, actions that engage curiosity, or those that expose us to beautiful sights and sounds. Extrinsic motivations are anything that involves the valuing of outcomes of actions. Thus, exercising because you like the feel of the wind in your face is an intrinsic motivation but exercising because it will help you sleep better tonight, or lose weight in the long term, would be extrinsic motivators. Self-Determination Theory and Its Implications « Healthier Together […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: