March 16, 2015

Self-Determination Theory #1

Two dozen years ago Edward Deci and Richard Ryan created what they called, and is now recognized as, the Self-Determination Theory.  I had run across it several times over the year, but did not read anything on this theory.  I did not until Colin Cox referred to it during his 2013 Neuro-Semantic Conference Keynote presentation at Kaula Lumper.  Then hearing him speak and speaking with him about it, I realized I needed to study it.  So I did.


They call their theory an Organismic Dialectical Perspective.  To them “organismic” means that we humans are active, growth-oriented organisms.  “Dialectical” means that there are two poles: one being to fulfil one’s own nature, the other is the tendency to go toward and fulfil our social environments.  This theory is a view of human development wherein people are assumed to possess an active tendency toward psychological growth and integration (Deci, 2002, p. 8).  In Neuro-Semantics we call that the self-actualization drive which we believe is in everyone and is the experience of all people.  Deci and Ryan even describe it as we do: “actualizing human potentials.”

“Endowed with an innate striving to exercise and elaborate their interests, individuals tend naturally to seek challenges, to discover new perspectives, and to actively internalize and transform cultural practices.  By stretching their capacities and expressing their talents and propensities, people actualize their human potentials.  Within this perspective, active growth is complemented by a tendency toward synthesis, organization, or relative unity of both knowledge and personality.   Moreover, the integration of that which is experienced provides the basis for a coherent sense of self— a sense of wholeness, vitality, and integrity.” (2002, Handbook of Self-Determination Research, p. 1).


They even quote Maslow and Rogers and others in the first Human Potential Movement and acknowledge:

“This general view of an active, integrating organism with the potential to act from a coherent sense of self can be found in psychodynamic and humanistic theories of personality and in cognitive theories of development.  Angyal, 1963, Maslow 1955, Rogers, 1963, (p. 1).”


What they then do with Maslow’s hierarchy, however, is to reduce it and simplify it.  Personally I think they over-simplify it.  They sub-sum all of the human needs under three categories (Deci, 2002, p. 5):

Competence: To feel effective in your actions, capacities and so want challenges to extend competence, and able to achieve goals.  Do you feel able to achieve your goals?

Relatedness: To feel connected to others, to be cared for and to care for others, sense of belongingness, sense of community, to feel a need to belong.  Do you feel connected to others in a warm, positive and interpersonal manner?

Autonomy: To feel that you are the origin or source of your behavior, you act from your interests and integrated values, that you are responsible for you, to feel a need to express your authentic self and yourself as a source of action.   Do you feel at choice and responsible for imitating your behavior?


This changes the hierarchy of human needs which Maslow researched and developed.  It does so first by leaving out the survival level, putting pieces of it under autonomy and competence and then entirely leaves out a category for self and for self-actualization needs and values— the being-values and drives.  For “self,” the theorists put it under all of the categories and speak about the importance of internalizing and integrating one’s values (they call that organismic integration).  But worse, it eliminates the hierarchical nature of needs, the emergence of needs.


For the NLP Meta-Program of internal referencing versus external referencing and for the semantic meta-program of self-identification, they speak about people becoming ego-involved in an activity and its outcome (Korzybski calls this “identification”) then one’s feelings of self-worth…

“… become hinged to their performance such that they do the activity to prove themselves that they are good at the activity and thus are worthy individuals.” (Deci, 2002, p. 13)


We call that conditional self-esteem.  And where we urge for unconditional self-esteem, they speak about shifting to “task-involvement” that is, being involved with a task for the task itself rather than its implications for feelings of self-worth.  In some places in the writing, they seem to confuse self-esteem (being) with self-confidence (doing) and yet at other places in the writing they talk about unconditional value— no conditions.


The importance of autonomy shows up in their emphasis on self-regulation.  When a person internalizes a process and brings it in from external to make it internal, they develop self-regulation.

“The more fully a regulation is internalized, the more it becomes part of the integrated self and the more it is the basis for self-determined behavior.” (p. 15).  This requires meaning.  “People must grasp its meaning … and synthesize that meaning.” (p. 20)


In this model, people “grasp” meaning, they do not create it or manage it.  From the NLP and Neuro-Semantic perspective it is a strange thing for a model that is supposed to promote self-determination. Now self-determination theory centrally focuses on the reason why, the motive, behind doing whatever you do.  If you act for external reasons, instrumental reasons, for the end-state—then it is not internal.  To be self-determining requires that a person choose to strive for their goals from out of their own values and self-knowledge.  One danger is that of self-infiltration: a person incorporates the recommendations of an authority figure while believing they were his ideas (p. 81).  We call that the inside-out process—which is central in Neuro-Semantics and Meta-Coaching.

When it comes to the basic needs, the authors use Maslow’s language (fully functioning, thwarting, eudaimonic, well-being, self-actualization, vitality), and yet do not quote or refer to Maslow when they do so (Deci, 2002, pp. 22-24).  I don’t know why people do that.  Do they think that no one who has read Maslow will read their  work and see the plagiarism?  Anyway, they do speak about the importance of experiencing “greater organismic thriving and health” as a bottom-up process.  Well-being is enhanced in this way as it arises from the lowest need to the highest.


Autonomy is a need of tremendous value.  They write that when people are autonomous, “people experience themselves as valuable for being who they are” rather than doing a particular activity.  From there, a person can then seek out various activities which the person values and do them for that reason.  In some of the research by Edward Deci, he discovered this:

“… rewarding people for engaging in enjoyable, fun activities decreases their likelihood of future engagement in these activities.” (2002, p. 132)


This is what Colin quoted in his Keynote when he presented a challenge to what most of us think we know about motivation.  Here is the shocker: External rewards reduces internal motivation!  Now imagine the implications this has for parenting, for coaching, and for training.  Where the writers of this theory go next is to the problem of “social contagion.”  What does that mean?  It means that when you pursue an activity “for its own sake,” this will be a compelling human phenomenon.  But when you pursue an activity for a compelling social reason, it undermines your personal autonomy and shifts  your “locus of causality” from inside to the outside.  That’s not good.  That will decrease your intrinsic motivation.  Stunning, isn’t it?


Suppose you actually wanted to reduce a person’s motivation.  What would you do?  The authors write this:

“…if people are induced to ascribe boredom and obligation to a task, they are less intrinsically motivated than if they ascribe enjoyment, challenge, and interest to the same activity.  Labeling an activity as work increases intrinsic motivation for those who held positive attitudes toward work compared to those who do not. (p. 143)

“Deci found that rewarding people for engaging in enjoyable, fun activities decreased their likelihood of future engagement in these activities.” (p. 132)


Now we are getting to meaning (semantics).  They speak about it in terms of labels and labeling.  Yet we know in Neuro-Semantics that what you attribute to an activity operates as its classification.  When you put something in a category (the meta-stating process) you thereby set the frame by which you understand it.  That’s why and how the frame determines the experience.  So what do you expect about any given activity?  Will it be enjoyable or boring?  Fun or work?  Be careful what you expect because your expectation (a meta-level state and frame) will set in place a self-organizing process.


As coaches, trainers, consultants, etc., this suggests that you nurture your client’s intrinsic motivation and internalization processes by encouraging them to take the initiative and develop their skills.  This is a non-controlling approach (rather than Rogers’ non-directive approach) because it is not being permissive or laissez-faire.  To be supportive in a way that encourages the other’s autonomy is to elicit from them why an activity is important, challenge them to step up to it, give feedback about how they are doing, etc.  For a client to be and feel autonomous he needs to perceive his locus of causality and volitional choice.   More about this in the next post.



Edward L. Deci, Richard M. Ryan (2002).  Handbook of Self-Determinational Research, UK: University of Rochester Press.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.