High School Mind, Brain, and Behavior TSS

Intrinsic Motivation and the Self Determination Theory

Read about the theories associated with motivation, and how positive motivation can impact your life.

As productive human beings, one of the most important qualities we possess is the ability to make choices. However, choices exist in two different categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. The differentiation relies on the determination of an individual to complete a certain task based on innate, spontaneous curiosity and implementation as opposed to the completion of a task guided by the attractive value of rewards. While it is widely understood that intrinsic tendencies are correlated to positive health benefits including enhanced learning and psychological wellness, the exploration of the factors leading to intrinsic motivation can be further discussed through the exploration of the Self Determination Theory.

History of Intrinsic Motivation Research

The defining research conducted in the field of intrinsic motivation are summarized below:

  1. Behaviorism: Hull 1940- 1960
    • Hull attributed motivations to a need to replenish or correct any deprivations in the four categories: hunger, thirst, sex, and pain avoidance. These needs take part in a biological equilibrium, and the deprivation of a certain category will determine the effective means in which a person changes behavior.
  2. Effectance Motivation: White 1959
    • White defined motivation as a human need to feel productive. This productivity leads to the development and progression of the human race and the improvement of society.
  3. Personal Causation: deCharms 1968
    • deCharms developed a novel idea that humans are motivated by the need to control personal tendencies. Therefore, motivation is driven intrinsically by understanding and maintaining the origins of their behavior.

Self Determination Theory

These three theories listed above influenced the Self Determination Theory (SDT) developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. SDT consists of a large framework regarding the study of intrinsic motivation. Specifics relating to the theory include a meta-theory on the assessment of motivation, a formal theory on the sources of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and a description on the corresponding roles each type of motivation has on the mental and physical body.

The meta-theory is based on the perspective of an organismal development. Assuming that individuals are organisms, the authors detail the importance of growth and development. The need for social nutrients and support allows for active engagement, and the lack thereof provides a reason for individuals to act in certain ways. Concerning the aforementioned social nutrients, the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness are core relationships that human aspire to attain.


The three basic social needs that fulfill motivational tendencies.

The formal theory detailing the sources of motivation are listed in six mini-theories:

  1. Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET)
    • Concerns the intrinsic motivational factors highlighted by autonomy and competence
    • Evaluates impacts of rewards, interpersonal controls, and ego on intrinsic motivation and creative development
  2. Organismic Integration Theory (OIT)
    • Concerns extrinsic behaviors as ones that aim toward a specific outcome rather than driven by behavioral choices
    • Details the subtypes of extrinsic motivation by a continuum of internalization (the more internalized, the more autonomous in behavior)
  3. Causality Orientations Theory (COT)
    • Concerns the tendencies in different environments and behaviors
    • The three types of orientations are autonomous (acting out of interest), control (acting externally), and amotivated (acting out of anxiety regarding competence)
  4. Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT)
    • Concerns the three psychological necessities: autonomy, competence, and relatedness
    • Any lack of the three psychological needs create behavorial changes that result in specifics types of motivation to repair the function
  5. Goal Contents Theory (GCT)
    • Concerns the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic effects
    • Extrinsic actions result in the affording of basic needs correlated to ill-being and distant interpersonal relationships, which is differentiated from intrinsic motivation
  6. Relationships Motivation Theory (RMT)
    • Concerns the third psychological need of relatedness
    • Provides that maintain relationships are not only desirable but also necessary for lasting health benefits

The Self Determination Theory is a guideline that many studies have researched upon. Correlating the factors of autonomy, competence, and relatedness to health benefits and fulfilling lifestyle. The SDT provides important reminders for individuals seeking to live healthily.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5364176/
  2. https://msu.edu/~dwong/StudentWorkArchive/CEP900F01-RIP/Webber-MotivationOverview.htm
  3. http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/theory/
  4. http://learningtheoriesinmath.weebly.com/motivational-and-humanist-theories.html


Image References:

  1. http://drivingimprovedresults.com/motivating-the-new-workforce-whats-it-going-to-take/

My name is Michelle Mai and I am a rising senior at Century High School. My passion in the various STEM fields, most notably being science research, has driven me to be a sixth-year participant in the regional, state science fairs, and the 2018 Intel ISEF conference this past May. While science fair and research projects are large parts of my scientific career thus far, I also am the president of my high school's STEM Society, a volunteer at the Mayo Clinic, and the founder of the Run for Ronald community fundraiser. In the near future, I hope to pursue a career in medicine and medical-related research to explore the exciting discoveries in the medical field for the improvement of the human quality of life.

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