The Three Ingredients of Self-Determination

Self-Determination Theory points to three intrinsic needs which underpin our intrinsic motivation. Here’s why we should all be aiming for them.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow produced one of the most enduring models of human motivation. Taught in classrooms and lecture theatres around the world, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs visualises motivation as a passage through stages of a pyramid.

At the pyramid’s bottom are our basic needs. The first and most imperative of which – our physiological needs – keep us alive. We won’t last long without food, water and shelter.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Once we have satisfied our physiological needs, our motivation turns to our safety needs. At its most fundamental level, this means protecting ourselves and family from danger.

Perhaps naively, this blog assumes readers have satisfied these first two needs. After all, if you have found this blog, you are unlikely to have done so because you were seeking food, water or a warm night’s rest.

Let’s us turn our attention, then, to the final three stages of the hierarchy of needs.

The next two blocks of the pyramid are our psychological needs. Both these needs reflect our motivation to feel loved and respected by others and to feel a sense of accomplishment and respect in ourselves.

As I wrote not long ago, our need for social relationships should arguably belong in basic needs. It’s a fundamental component of good health. But esteem needs are more nuanced. Like the final stage of the pyramid – self-actualisation – how we judge achieving our full potential or derive respect from others feel like murky territory.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) can help with that.

What Is Self-Determination Theory (SDT)?

Developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) suggests there are three main intrinsic needs which underpin our self-determination and motivation: autonomy, competence and relatedness.

So what do these terms mean in practice?

  1. Autonomy: Perceived options and control in determining what we do. Things that restrict our perceived options and erode this perceived control decrease our intrinsic motivation.
  2. Competence: Our thirst for self-improvement. It’s our need to achieve whilst also building our knowledge and skills, developing mastery in a field.
  3. Relatedness: Our need for a sense of belonging and connection with others. Our relationships foster a greater sense of intrinsic satisfaction and motivation.

I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t these just fluffy terms for the same things Maslow’s described in 1943?

Not quite. Here’s why not.

Maslow’s model tells us that motivation passes through stages of needs. One must be satisfied with a one need to be motivated by the next. But life simply doesn’t function like that. That’s why in truth there is scarce empirical evidence to support the hierarchy of needs.

Self-Determination Theory, in contrast, provides a more holistic model of motivation and is backed by extensive research. Measures of those three ingredients have even been shown to be useful predictors of psychological health and well-being.

Thinking in Causality Orientations

So how might we use the theory in practice?

To answer that, we first need to know how we currently orient our environments.

When assessing levels of self-determination, Deci and Ryan have argued that individuals can be placed in three categories (or ‘causality orientations’):

  1. Autonomous: This is where autonomy, competence and relatedness needs are all satisfied.
  2. Strong controlled: This is where competence and relatedness are satisfied but autonomy is not.
  3. Impersonal: This is where all three needs aren’t satisfied.

Research suggests that we tend to orient towards a mix of the three, but the degree to which we orient to each can act as a predictor for health, well-being, motivation and performance.

Our objective as we consider this theory in practice, then, is to bias our orientation towards autonomous and away from the damaging realm of impersonal.

How to Use Self-Determination Theory

Let’s look at how this might look in practice with two important areas: our money and our goals.

#1: Rethinking Money

Does money buy happiness? The answer: it probably helps to a point.

The evidence suggests that as our income rises, happiness levels rise, too. But then we reach a point at which our happiness plateaus. Money doesn’t keep delivering incremental gains in happiness per dollar.

Of course, none of us would complain at receiving a transfer of a million dollars to our bank account tomorrow morning. It would provide a delicious hedonic hit. But the hard data offers an important lesson: that at a point, money delivers diminishing happiness returns.

Now, we’d all like to find that out for ourselves, me included. But let’s not ignore the reality that those three needs – autonomy, competence and relatedness – are the real levers of satisfaction once we pass a certain level of income.

When assessing our careers, we would therefore do well to ask ourselves where our jobs sit on the causality orientation. Does it provide an opportunity to achieve mastery of a skill? Does it bring me closer to others? Do I have options and control over my actions? Can I mould my role to better serve these areas?

We needn’t take the radical decision of throwing in the towel with our job, but these questions should provoke some serious thought for our well-being. As I wrote earlier this year, we may benefit from job crafting:  redesigning our jobs to increase satisfaction, engagement and resilience.

#2: Rethinking Aspirations

These three ingredients should also play a key role in our goalsetting. By putting autonomy, competence and relatedness at the forefront of our thinking, we can take goals from shallow extrinsic motivators to more meaningful intrinsic goals.

Think about how a goal might be framed around these ingredients and the causality orientations.

Consider a simple example: a goal to exercise more.

A goal to do more exercise to look attractive is what Deci and Ryan would call an impersonal orientation. It addresses nothing to do with the mastery of a skill, connecting with others or autonomy. It’s therefore unlikely to provide sustained motivation over the long run.

A goal to do more exercise by joining a tennis club would be a strong-controlled orientation. It provides the opportunity to connect with other players (that’s a tick against relatedness) and the opportunity to develop a new skill (that’s a tick against competence).

We can’t always move every goal into the autonomous orientation, but subtle tweaks can have dramatic effects on motivation levels. As I wrote last year, studies tell us that intrinsic goals offer significant performance advantages over extrinsic goals.

The Pursuit of Mastery

Self-Determination Theory isn’t a silver bullet for motivation and well-being. That goes without saying.

But it is a different lens through which to view arenas of our lives and improve them. It’s another tool for our armory of self-improvement.

After basic needs are met, the prevailing message is that we find motivation in our capacity to master something. To master a skill, to be the master of own destiny, to master social balance.

My key takeaway: motivation is the fruit of the pursuit of mastery.

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