Any decent author knows that in order to be able to create believable and engaging characters, the question of what drives and motivates them has to have a good answer. Upbringing, values, cultural background — all need to be taken into account. Yet while with fiction it’s not that hard to do-over chapters, re-write dialogue or even make important changes at the editor’s request, real life rarely allows for major fixes.

The subject of what motivates individuals and more importantly, what motivates groups of people to act in a unitary and predictable way, is one that scholars have looked into for quite some time. There are several theories of motivation. Probably the most notorious one is Maslow’s pyramid. While that stands true even today since in our reality basic needs are rarely if ever subject to lack of fulfillment, a more refined approach is deemed necessary.

One theory that has all the right ingredients for making sense in modern reality and that displays a high degree of applicability both in education and business organizations is the Self-Determination Theory.

A historical glance at Self-Determination Theory

This way of looking at what makes people ‘tick’ tries to connect personality, human motivation, and optimal functioning. It posits that there are two distinct types of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic—and that both are powerful forces in shaping who we are and how we choose to act.

It is all rooted in the works of researchers Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it has been extensively improved since then, the basic concepts of the theory come from Deci and Ryan’s important 1985 book on the topic.

Extrinsic motivation is described as a drive to behave in certain ways that is influenced by external sources and results in external rewards, while intrinsic motivation comes from within. There are internal drives that lead us to behave in certain ways, including ideas that we value, interests we pursue, and a personal sense of morality.

The three basic needs

Even if it would seem that self-determination is generally the goal for individuals, most of us are oftentimes motivated by external sources. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are highly influential factors in the way we lead our lives and act in specific situations, and both drive us to meet the three basic needs that the SDT mode talks about:

  1. Autonomy: people have a need to feel that they are in control of their own destiny and have a say in the way their lives unfold.
  2. Competence: another need concerns our levels of achievement, knowledge, and skills; people seek to build their competence and achieve a high level of mastery in areas that are important or pleasant to them.
  3. Relatedness (also called Connection): people need to have a sense of belonging and connection with others; ultimately we are social beings and each of us needs other people to a higher or lower degree.

Self-Determination Theory and goals

Since it is mostly about the individual and what drives them to act in a certain way, goals and the effort put towards achieving them are under close scrutiny. The theory states that not only is the content of our goals (what we work and hope for) important for our need satisfaction and well-being, the reason behind our goals (why we put in effort in achieving them) is just as vital for our well-being.


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Scientists have shown that the degree to which behavioral regulation of goal striving was of the individual’s own making (self-directed) versus controlled was a very good predictor of well-being outcomes. In layman’s terms, we are more satisfied and successful when we are able to pursue our goals by our own means rather than being tied to a strict, external regulatory system.

Even when pursuing extrinsic rewards like monetary gain or notability, we are more satisfied and self-actualized when we pursue them autonomously, for our own reasons and with our own methods.

Closing thoughts

Although applying this theory (by conducting the myriad of tests and assessments its creators have made available) has the impressive capacity to predict behavior outcomes based on what motivates that particular behavior, the most important value it brings to the table is giving the individual the opportunity to gain precious self-knowledge. When people become aware of their core values and see that pursuing intrinsic goals that are in sync with those values will lead to a greater satisfaction and even that constantly looked after feeling of happiness, they tend to make better choices.

Ultimately it’s about choosing the path that is right instead of the one that is more or less aggressively signaled by external individuals or entities. Being authentic about values and objectives is the right way towards success.

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