Self-Determination Theory: 3 Basic Needs That Drive Our Behavior

Self-determination theory argues that people are motivated to learn, grow and change their lives, if their three basic psychological needs are satisfied: competence, connection, and autonomy. People who are unable to fulfill these three needs, may feel amotivation, or need extrinsic rewards to learn or make changes. They often experience little control over their own lives, no sense of self-determination, and often also poor mental health.

“I agree with this video. I can see myself in different spectrums of it…This brief yet interesting video and my current “amotivated” state motivated me to comment here.”

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The full story
Self-Determination full story

Ask people for blood donation, and you might find many volunteers. Tell the same people that they’ll get paid for it, and many will now decline to help. Why do you think that might be?

3 basic needs that drive our behavior
3 basic needs

Self determination theory argues that we do what we do, because we are motivated by three basic needs that drive our behavior more than anything else. First comes autonomy. We desire to have the freedom of making our own choices and not be forced to do something we don’t want. Second is competence. We want to feel that we have the skills required to do the work ourselves, and not be confronted with tasks that we don’t understand. Third is connection. We want to experience a sense of belonging, of being needed, and not feel useless or like an outsider.

self-determination spectrum
Self-Determination spectrum

We can think of motivation ranging from “non-self-determined to self-determined.” On the left we have amotivation, in the center extrinsic motivation, and on the right intrinsic motivation. In terms of quality they range from lower forms to higher forms. Along this spectrum are, according to self determination theory, 6 distinct types, represented here by: Anton, Mary, Taichi, Abeni, John, and Lalisa who all have to study for a major exam.


Anton does not understand the topic and therefore feels disconnected to the material. His need for competence remains unsatisfied and undermines his autonomy — leading him to lose control over the situation. As a result he begins to think that school is pointless. He experiences amotivation.

extrinsic motivation: externally regulated
Extrinsic Motivation externally regulated

Mary likes to learn, when she knows that if she does well, she will be rewarded. But when no one is around to stimulate her, she feels disconnected. Mary is not autonomous in her studies, because she needs rewards that regulate her behavior externally — a job her mother usually does. This stage is called extrinsic motivation: externally regulated

extrinsic motivation: introjected regulation
Extrinsic Motivation introjected regulation

Taichi strives to win, or match the performance of others. When he’s not among the top, his desires for competence and autonomy are not satisfied. He feels guilty when he can’t be as good as others. The root of his behavior is therefore external.  This stage is known as extrinsic motivation: introjected regulation

extrinsic motivation: regulation through identification
Extrinsic Motivation regulation through identification

Abeni values learning and sees herself as a good student. To her, getting good grades is important, because it confirms her self-image. Despite the fact that she doesn’t feel connected to the material, she does well because she regulates her behavior by identifying with the idea of being a good student. She’s motivated by an ideal. This stage is called extrinsic motivation: regulation through identification

extrinsic motivation: integrated regulation
Extrinsic Motivation integrated regulation

John thinks learning is important, because it makes him a better human being. To develop his intellect and become the best version of himself, he tries to understand things, even if they are boring. He feels connected and competent. But since his behavior is regulated by the desire to live up to an idea, he is still not fully autonomous. This stage is known as extrinsic motivation: integrated regulation

intrinsic motivation
Intrinsic Motivation

Lalisa learns things because she is curious and enjoys it. She can feel completely connected to the material and often loses track of time. Studying gives her a deep sense of satisfaction. She experiences complete autonomy and as a result of her intrinsic interests, develops the highest forms of competence. Now we speak of intrinsic motivation

how to regain self-determination
To regain self motivation

Regardless of where we are along the spectrum, we all have complex human minds with changing interests and conflicting desires. Doing one thing, we may feel fully motivated — autonomous, competent and connected. But then, the next day, life gets in the way and robs us of our three basic needs — we feel nothing but amotivation. To regain your self-determination, you might want to take a break, seek a change in environment or connect with other people.

Richard ryan & edward deci
Self-Determination Theory - psychologists

Self-determination theory was developed by the two American psychologists, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, in the 1970s. More recent research points to some cultural differences. Many American students’ seem to learn to outcompete others. When Chinese study hard, it’s often because they feel guilty if they do not meet expectations. On the interplay between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, Deci said: “Sure, money motivates, but that’s not the point. The point is that while money is motivating people, it is also undermining their intrinsic motivation.”

what do you think?
Self-Determination Theory what do u think

So what do you think about the model? Do you agree or disagree with the theory? And what do you think about extrinsic rewards? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and let us know what motivated you to do so.


  • Center for Self-determination Theory (2021). Meta-Theory: The Organismic Viewpoint.
  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1980). Self-determination theory: When mind mediates behavior. The Journal of mind and Behavior, 33-43.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology61, 101860.
  • Wang, Y., & Wind, S. A. (2020). Comparing internalization of learning motivation between American and Chinese college students. Journal of Psychological and Educational Research28(2), 7-30.
  • Self Determination Theory and How It Explains Motivation –

Dig deeper!

Classroom exercise

Ask your students if they would donate blood to save innocent lives or alternatively, read a literary classic to increase their own intellect. Let them write their answers (yes or no) in a piece. After you collected and counted the answers, ask again. But now tell your students that they’ll get paid the equivalent of $10 dollars for doing that same thing. Again collect their answers. 

Before you reveal the answers, do a discussion about what motivated their decisions and then ask them to vote which of the two ways got more positive responses. After you are done, explain about the main difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, then watch the video and divide deeper into the various kinds of motivation as well as the 3 basic human needs that might have driven their decisions.


  • Script: Yurou Wang, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor, The University of Alabama
  • Editors:Jonas Koblin, Morgan Lizop
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda
  • Fact-checking: Ludovico Di Chanaz 
  • Production: Selina Bador

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