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Self-determination Theory: Understanding Human Motivation for Fun and Profit

When you build software, sooner or later you’ll want to think about human behavior — most notably about what motivates humans.

I don’t mean Skinner boxes, points and ladders, variable reward schedules and the like as you might find them in “free to play but we have an in-game currency” games or in casinos.

Instead, I want you to think about human motivation in a sustainable manner that is also good for your users. Making them addicts isn’t the way.

When you build software, sooner or later you will want to think about human behavior — most notably about what motivates humans.

I don’t mean Skinner boxes, points and ladders, variable reward schedules and the like as you might find them in “free to play but we have an in-game currency” games or in casinos.

Instead, I want you to think about human motivation in a sustainable manner that is also good for your users. Making them addicts isn’t the way.


We also want to understand the adoption of tools and ideas better — motivation is a spot where Rogers’ theory of the diffusion of innovations stops short, for example. It’s a different realm.

To understand all of this better, we need a proper model of human motivation. Self-determination Theory (SDT) is just that — a model, a macro theory, of human motivation.

It’s one of several models of human motivation, but it’s one that has been confirmed over and over by current research. Plus, it also applies to work settings, which makes it suitable for supporting people in their work as well.

This post provides a brief and therefore simplified overview of Self-determination Theory. But even knowing about these few concepts and how they relate to each other can help you build better products for your users.

Basic Psychological Needs

The base assumption of SDT is that human beings have natural, innate, and constructive tendencies to develop an ever more elaborated and unified sense of self. 

That is, when sufficiently supported, people will strive to learn; extend themselves; invest effort; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly.


However, when missing the necessary support, individuals can become fragmented, passive, reactive, or alienated. Ryan and Deci — pretty much the godfathers of SDT — acknowledge three fundamental psychological needs that need to be satisfied for an individual to thrive.

  1. Competence refers to individuals feeling effective in their interactions with their environments and experience exercising and expressing their capacities. The competence need is related to seeking attainable challenges that match and extend one’s capabilities.
  2. Relatedness refers to individuals feeling connected to others, to caring for and being cared for by those others, and to a feeling of belonging. It is related to feeling secure in the company of one’s peers.
  3. Autonomy refers to being the perceived origin or source of one’s own behavior. Contrary to intuition, the autonomy need is not related to independence — rather, it refers to an individual’s need of feeling in control of their environment and their actions.

These three basic needs can be supported by various strategies.

For example, encountering challenges that are both attainable, yet stretch an individual’s capabilities to a new level, can support perceived competence.


Unexpected positive feedback on these challenges also supports perceived competence, while negative feedback can thwart it, leading to lowered intrinsic motivation.

Csíkszentmihályi’s (“chick-sent-me-high”) concept of the flow experience [commission earned] is related to the autonomy and competence needs.

The autonomy need can be supported by giving individuals choice in their tasks. As creepy as it may sound, that choice need not be real to have an effect — we just need perceived choice.

Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Self-determination Theory distinguishes between two different kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Individuals that are intrinsically motivated to carry out a task do so because of the enjoyment or fulfillment that is, in their perception, inherent to the task.

Conversely, extrinsic motivation is external to the task itself: individuals perform the task to reach another goal, such as obtaining a reward, avoiding punishment, or gaining in social status.

Intrinsic Motivation

To explain intrinsic motivation, Self-determination Theory contains Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) as a sub-theory. CET does not specify what causes intrinsic motivation — rather, Ryan and Deci view it as having evolved in humans. Instead, CET is concerned with factors that can support or inhibit an individual’s natural potential for intrinsic motivation.

The most important supporting factors for intrinsic motivation are perceived autonomy and competence. Both must be present for intrinsic motivation to thrive.

Facilitators for perceived competence are, for example, optimal challenges, positive performance feedback, and freedom from demeaning evaluations.

At the same time, the individual must experience her behavior as self-determined, i.e., experience autonomy. Relatedness can further support intrinsic motivations.

The sustainability of engaging in an activity, productivity, and the well-being of individuals are associated with motivations that are more intrinsic.

This especially applies to creative activities — as opposed to routine work, for which extrinsic motivators such as rewards can provide legitimate support.

Whereas intrinsic motivation can lead to higher and more sustained engagement with a creative activity, extrinsic motivation can facilitate engagement in routine tasks that are not intrinsically rewarding, or push individuals to try out a behavior they have not performed before. Similar to what I did when I gamified version control for computer science students.

Extrinsic Motivation and Internalization

For understanding extrinsic motivation, Self-determination Theory provides another sub-theory: Organismic Integration Theory (OIT).

Extrinsic motivators — such as rewards or deadlines — can motivate an individual to perform a task she is not intrinsically motivated to do.

However, if the individual is intrinsically motivated for the task, extrinsic motivators can diminish that existing motivation.

When rewards, threats, directives, deadlines, pressured evaluations, or imposed goals are present for a task, the person ceases performing it for its own sake and loses her sense of autonomy.

Expected extrinsic motivators undermine intrinsic motivation. Thus, if the extrinsic motivator is then removed, the individual might stop performing the behavior.

However, not all extrinsic motivators are the same: OIT recognizes a continuum that distinguishes extrinsic motivations based on how internalized the motivation is for the individual and on the degree of perceived autonomy (see Fig. 1).

The different types of motivation as according to Self-determination Theory.

These different nuances of motivation have been shown to have different influences on individuals:

  1. Amotivation: Individuals who are amotivated do not act or merely act without intent. It can be caused by not valuing an activity, not feeling competent to do it, or not expecting it to yield a desired outcome.
    A bored software tester mindlessly clicking through user interface dialogs and possibly making mistakes is an example for amotivated behavior.
  2. Extrinsic motivation, external regulation: Behaviors that are externally regulated are performed to satisfy an external demand or because of the possibility of a reward. Individuals experience it as controlled or alienated.
    When a software developer is writing her lines of code only because she will earn 10 Euros for each 100 lines, she is extrinsically motivated with external regulation.
  3. Extrinsic motivation, introjected regulation: Introjected behaviors are performed to avoid guilt or anxiety or to attain ego enhancements such as pride. The behavior is not experienced as part of oneself, but as externally influenced.
    For example, a software developer who is working on a task only to avoid disappointing her team is extrinsically motivated with introjected regulation.
  4. Extrinsic motivation, identified regulation: For identified behaviors, the action is accepted or owned as personally important. The individual consciously values the goal or regulation.
    An example for identified regulation is a software developer who is fixing a bug not because she enjoys doing it, but because she acknowledges that it is necessary to move the project forward.
  5. Extrinsic motivation, integrated regulation: If identified regulators become part of the self — that is, the individual has evaluated them and was able to align them with her own values — they are called integrated.
    When a software developer is performing an unattractive task because she knows that practicing this task will make her a better developer, she is extrinsically motivated with integrated regulation.
  6. Intrinsic motivation: An individual performs an activity only for the sake of the activity itself, feeling autonomous and self-determined.

Activities that are more internalized are associated with greater initiative, better coping with failure, less anxiety, more enjoyment, more effort, and better performance.

Influences from others — e.g. colleagues or superiors — are the main reason individuals engage in activities they are not intrinsically motivated for. Supporting perceived relatedness, therefore, is a crucial element when facilitating the internalization of extrinsic motivators.

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Similar findings hold for feelings of competence and autonomy. People are more likely to adopt a behavior when they feel capable of performing it, and supporting autonomy by providing individuals a sense of choice and freedom from external pressures allows individuals to actively transform values into their own.

Motivation and Software Development

The influence of motivation on software development has long been acknowledged in software engineering research and practice. However, empirical research is rare. Let’s take a look at a few examples for what we know about motivation in software development.


In his 1981 book Software Engineering Economics, Barry Boehm discusses the influence of developer motivation on productivity. He advises managers of software development projects to especially support the growth needs of their developers, as “for many software people, a good deal of self-actualization is involved with becoming a better software professional.” (p.~670)

Boehm also warns of some simple strategies that seem to increase productivity, but do so only in the short term. For example, he criticizes reducing software development tasks into small, meaningless pieces, or using planning and control metrics — extrinsic motivators — for performance-appraisal (pp.~645,~638). Boehm also mentions the detrimental effect of low motivation on employee retention.

In their 1987 book Peopleware [commission earned], DeMarco and Lister discuss several issues of motivation in software engineering. The authors criticize the use of extrinsic motivators (management [means] kicking ass) as being infeasible for the software engineering profession, as such approaches are unlikely to produce creative, innovative work and will unlikely be sustainable in the long run. Instead, DeMarco and Lister argue that software engineers love their work and that extrinsic motivation from management is almost always superfluous.

A 2011 study by Sach et al. supports that software engineering itself is a motivating task. In a subsequent investigation, Sach and Petre found support for the beneficial impact of positive feedback and the detrimental effect of negative feedback, a theme mentioned earlier in this post.

Beecham et al. conducted a systematic literature review on motivation in software engineering. They find that software engineers are more interested in growth (i.e., challenges and learning) than in achievements (e.g. promotions) and that they value independence. According to the authors, motivated engineers tend to stay in their jobs longer and are more productive than de-motivated ones.


Self-determination Theory as a model of human motivation may not contain the whole truth about what motivates human beings.

However, it is a useful model and, according to research, works well in explaining behavior and creating solutions.

Taken together with a model of how new ideas spread, Self-determination Theory helps us understand human behavior better — and, therefore, how to build software that humans will use and want to use. It helps us help our users grow and learn.


We know that interpersonal networks play an important role in the diffusion of ideas, and that relatedness is an important influence on one’s motivation.

In my follow-up post, I’m looking at some of the theories that explain how and why groupware, social media, and chat applications do or don’t work.

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