The self-determination model; key to behavioral change

Self-determination theory was introduced into behavioral theory in the year 2000 by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. It is unknown to anyone that behavior has an immense influence on physical well-being. Consider, for example, the improving physical condition that one obtains by doing more sports. The self-determination model provides a clear overview of the types of motivation that make or keep a person driven to maintain a certain behavior.

What is the model used for?

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a model that can be used in many areas. To give some examples, it can establish its powerful effects in the business world (e.g. motivating employees), in the sports world, in rehabilitation (e.g. smoking cessation) and so on. Here we focus on the effect of the SDT on behavior change in relation to physical health.

How should the terminology be interpreted?

Different forms of motivation are mapped, namely intrinsic motivation, identified regulation, introjected regulation, external regulation and amotivation. These concepts in themselves do not have much meaning for laymen. So time to clarify this:

Intrinsic motivation

This is the most consistent form of motivation. Behavior is maintained or initiated because the person in question likes it. He/she derives pleasure from the behavior or the challenge associated with it. For example, jogging three times a week simply because you enjoy it.

Identified regulation

In contrast to the above intrinsic motivation, the behavior is not necessarily experienced as pleasurable or fun, but is acted on a basis of meaningfulness. He/she performs the behavior because it is experienced as meaningful or important. For example, jog three times a week because you want to achieve better physical health.

Introjected regulation

The behavior is performed to avoid feelings of guilt, shame or fear. One feels the urge to uphold one’s own self-esteem and prove oneself. For example, go jogging three times a week because otherwise you will feel bad about not having continued the behavior.

External regulation

The individual performs the behavior in question because he/she will be rewarded for it afterwards. However, the other way around is also possible. The individual performs the behavior in question because he/she will be punished if he/she does not perform this behavior. This form of regulation can also concern whether or not the expectations of others are met. For example, go jogging three times a week because the physiotherapist has told you to exercise more. For example, walk one more lap around the football field because otherwise the coach will not allow you to take a shower.


There is absolutely no intention or activity. This is the zero point of motivation.


At the top of the model you will find the internalization factor, which systematically increases from amotivation towards intrinsic motivation. Internalization refers to the extent to which the behavior becomes part of your lifestyle. It can be said that the greater the degree of internalization, the less effort it requires for the individual to perform a certain behavior.

According to the principle of behavioral change, this is only complete when maximum internalization has been achieved. Simply performing the behavior is not sufficient in this case. Within the process, the aim is to move from an extrinsic regulation process to a more intrinsic motivation that is directly proportional to internalization.

Controlled versus autonomous motives

Controlled motives are those with a compelling character. The behavior is carried out under the influence of the perceived pressure, which can be both external and internal. Studies have shown that controlled motives significantly induce shorter-lived behavior change. The behavioral change remains present as long as the pressure exists. When the pressure is removed, healthy behavior will also decrease. This is not the case with autonomous motives. This is based on voluntary motives (perceiving the behavior as fun or valuable).