The self-determination theory was originally created to gain deeper understanding of intrinsic motivation of humans (Ryan & Deci, 2000).  The theory provides three domains that satisfy universal psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.  Today the theory is used in such diverse industries as education, management, gambling, and video gaming in order to create habits, create behaviors, and motivate to action (Hofacker et al., 2016; Aguilar, Holman, & Fishman, 2013; Kanat-Maymon et al., 2015; Williams et al., 2014; Evans, 2015; Weiyun & Hypnar, 2015; Rodriguez, Neighbors, Rinker, & Tackett, 2015; Langan, Lonsdale, Blake, Toner, 2015).

Ryan & Deci (2000) break down the self-determination theory into six domains: cognitive evaluation, organismic integration, causality orientations, basic psychological needs, goal contents, and relationships motivation.  Cognitive evaluation means motivation in people that causes them to act in life without external encouragement.  An example could be a child that plays and explores without receiving external punishment or reward.

The second element of the self-determination theory is the organismic integration.  This means that people, in addition to the above intrinsic motivation, are also motivated by extrinsic factors.  They often internalize such social elements as values, goals, or belief systems, and as they adopt them, they are motivated by them. A spectrum of external motivators includes external regulation, introjection, and identification.

The third part of the self-determination theory is causality orientation.  Within this concept people act on ideas because they want to orient themselves toward the environment.  The orientations may include valuing that which is occurring. There may be gains or approval available, or there may be anxiety concerning competence.  These orientations are called autonomy, control, and amotivated orientation.

The fourth element of the self-determination theory is the set of basic psychological needs.  In order to nurture psychological health and optimal functioning, people must satisfy their psychological needs.  Three important needs are identified: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  Ryan & Deci (2000) argue that such needs are cross-developmental and cross‑cultural but that they require validation and refinements.

The fifth element of the theory is goal contents.  Goals can be both extrinsic and intrinsic.  Both types of goals can motivate.  Extrinsic goals are associated with lower wellness and include financial success, popularity, and appearance.  Intrinsic goals such as close relationships, personal growth, and community lead to greater well-being.

The sixth and final element in self-determination theory includes relationships motivation.  People not only benefit from high quality relationships, but according to Ryan & Deci (2000), they require them to satisfy the need for relatedness.  In relationships involving romantic partners, best friends, or those belonging to a group, people satisfy their psychological needs.  High quality relationships are further defined as relationships where members of the relationship support all three needs discussed in other elements of the self-determination theory.  When partners support each other’s autonomy, competence, and relatedness, such relationships become high quality relationships (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Five applications of the self-determination theory. 

The next five paragraphs will explain the five cases of theory application by detailing design and findings.  The next section will provide analysis and a critical review of the research studies.  All five empirical studies are based on the self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Rodriguez et al. (2015) applied the self-determination theory to a study of young adults and gambling behaviors. Out of 30,000 college students who were invited for the study, 3,052 students responded with interest, and 252 students were selected for the study.  The results of the study supported the self-determination framework in that autonomy appeared to protect against problematic gambling, specifically in lowering the activity of chasing gambling losses.  A component of the self-determination theory, autonomy, influenced the means to affect regulation or provide escape, which is the second major reason for pathological gambling.

Beard & Wickham (2016) applied self-determination theory to deepening the knowledge of motivation, driving people who play video games.  The relationship between self-esteem and problematic gaming behaviors, such as Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), was evaluated by applying Amazon’s Mechanical Turk with 600 participants.  The focus was in the role of validation seeking, reward sensitivity, and competition.  Participants with autonomous and controlled orientation reported on the survey intrinsic motivation; however, low autonomy resulted in gamers reporting motivation through extrinsic motivation.

In the study “Testing the Effects of a Self-Determination Theory-Based Intervention with Youth Gaelic Football Coaches on Athlete Motivation and Burnout” (Langan et al., 2015), researchers apply the theory to the sport domain.  Based on the self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) an intervention activity was developed.  This included a motivational climate supportive of needs.  This was to foster “quality athlete motivation” as well as minimize burnout.  The study provides preliminary evidence that self-determination theory can decrease the risk of athlete burnout (Langan et al, 2015).

Williams et al. (2014) applied the self-determination theory to the field of business in order to address managerial support to avoid somatic symptoms in the workplace without medical reasons.  The study developed a model to positively affect important work outcomes and identify the sources of the somatic symptoms.  The model included social-contextual and motivational factors based on self-determination theory. The design included 287 Norwegian employees, who received managerial support for basic psychological needs with autonomous self-regulation at work.  The study concludes that the application of such methods decreases emotional exhaustion, turnover intention, and absenteeism.

In another study, the theory is applied to new mothers and breastfeeding (Kestler-Peleg, Shamir-Dardikman, Hermoni, & Ginzburg, 2015) in which 236 women participated.  While women practice breastfeeding for many reasons, a major reason being cultural and medical promotion of the practice, women report various levels of well-being.  The authors report a “heavy price” paid by women who breastfeed based on extrinsic motivation even if it is autonomous.  They note a complex relationship between maternal feelings and motivation to breastfeed.  Therefore, the study points out the need for intrinsic motivation in breastfeeding beyond the extrinsic cultural stigma of failing a primary maternal role.

Critical evaluation of appropriate use. 

The self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) is a complex theory creating relationships between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  The theory has been validated and applied to many studies over the last 16 years.  It is common for studies to apply the theory partially, primarily in the autonomy domain, with less focus on relatedness or competence.  In addition, some studies have weaknesses that are limitations to create a control group to remove support of autonomy in a generally free society.  To contradict the self‑determination theory, one may need to create a scenario with as little autonomy as possible.  Theoretically, self-determination could be proven wrong in a forced labor context if efficiency or employee well-being are monitored.  In studies where productivity or other outcomes are measured, better results may be reached with forced workforce of extremely limited autonomy.

The study of young adults demonstrates a thorough application of the self-determination theory (Rodriguez et al., 2015).  Based on a survey, the study draws conclusions to connect the psychological need of autonomy with pathological gambling.  Autonomy was correlated to lowering the activity of chasing gambling losses.  I would submit that financial context of chasing gambling losses may depend on the socioeconomic situation of the participants.  In this study a college student population was selected, which may have a limited set of dependent family or other responsibilities in terms of financial pressure.  It is possible that autonomy to pursue gambling losses increases as the desperation of the subject increases, which mitigates the concept of autonomy.

However, the study is based on autonomous and voluntary participation, which could further skew the results.  Participants who are already showing indicators of autonomous behaviors may be affected and report greater influence by autonomy in other parts of their lives.  Therefore, the findings of the research may apply to a limited general population.  The design of the study somewhat mitigates the voluntary participation element by selecting only 252 subjects out of 3,052 interested parties.  This indicates that the researchers were able to apply rigorous rules to applicants, which put the researchers at a high risk of minimizing the data sample of the study in favor of their own definition of a gambler.

The second study, which was based on the Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), was conducted through the Amazon Mechanical Turk (Beard & Wickham, 2016).  This was likely an appropriate tool in researching a global population, which is active on the Internet.  The study focused on autonomy as a primary factor.  The theory of self-determination (Ryan & Deci, 2000) covers a broader set of motivators including relatedness and competence.  Autonomy was linked with self-esteem, which could be a result of poor relationship-building skills or factors impacting feelings of incompetence in life or work.  Therefore, the complexity of the theory tends to be simplified to autonomy as a self-determination driver at the cost of competence and relatedness.

The third study of applying self-determination theory to sport demonstrates an attempt to leverage motivation in young adults to avoid negative psychological effects such as burnout (Langan et al., 2015).  The study uses the necessary aspects of the theory such as autonomy, relatedness, and competence.  Competence is inherent in competitive sport as performance is measured and improvements tracked.  Relatedness is applied in the relationship with the coach and with other players.  However, this study had a limited sample of coaches, specifically six, who were able to apply the theory to their total of 87 athletes.  In small case studies, this could mean that application of the theory process might have been a special time of attention and personal interest shown to the players; therefore, more than just self-determination theory would have been at work.  This is often a challenge when applying new methods in discipline that involve teaching or coaching.  A teacher who is trying something new may be excited and encouraged by it; therefore, that emotional state often influences the result beyond the actual task being studied.

In the fourth study of 287 Norwegian employees, where self-determination was applied to avoid somatic symptoms affecting work performance, the studied population sample is encouraging (Williams et al., 2014).  However, the study makes a distinction between medical symptoms and somatic symptoms without proper medical validation.  Especially during a study, employees are likely to self-identify as medically affected versus willfully avoiding employment responsibilities.  When observed at the workplace, employees have greater conflict of interest in reaching objectivity for the good of the integrity of the study.  Further, the relation among managerial intervention and emotional exhaustion, turnover intention, and absenteeism can be described as only casual.  Many factors influence employee disclosure to an existing employer.  In addition, many factors, apart from self-determination, could effectively cause some improvement in employee well-being when managers are attentive, communicate, and value employees during the research study.

The fifth study of motivation in breastfeeding (Kestler-Peleg et al., 2015) examines women who volunteer for the study.  When it comes to examining motivation, this selection process creates a potential problem.  Women who already are demotivated or perhaps made the decision not to breastfeed, likely did not volunteer for the study.  The cultural stigma of bad parenting in relation to the choice of breastfeeding likely plays a role in who would be willing to participate.  Therefore, the population selected for the study affects the ability to generalize results of the study.