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Self-determination is any effort to be in control of and alter our actions, thoughts and feelings. Its essential nature is of one action over-riding another, in terms of stopping, starting or changing behaviour.

Self-determination is the degree to which we feel our actions are autonomous. Autonomous behaviour comes from one's sense of self, unlike controlled behaviour that comes from outside pressure. Self-determination may well be the most powerful factor in becoming a well-adjusted person.

The basic features of self-determination include having a particular goal, tracking yourself in relation to that standard and changing your response to better match the standard. Self-determination failure can happen when the person doesn't know the goal, when, for example a teacher has failed to make it explicit or when the person has conflicting standards between home and work. Self-determination problems can also happen when the person is unable to self-monitor, for example in a group of bullies where the person loses their sense of individuality, or when the worker doesn't have the skills to achieve the standard because of difficulties such as listening to instructions or keeping focused.

Moving from external regulation to self-determination

According to Self-Determination Theory, self determination ranges through different types of extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Types of extrinsic motivation can be differentiated by the degree of autonomy in the regulation of behaviour. The different stages reflect the degree to which the value of the behaviour is internalised.  

The starting point is usually to get people to do what we tell them to do. Examples of external regulation include the teacher who uses punishment lines whenever rules are broken.  

Beyond compliance there is a need to encourage people to 'internalise' these rules. At the stage of introjected regulation the rules are adopted but not incorporated into the sense of self. Introjected regulation indicates that people go along with a task because they think they should and feel guilty if they don?t. Such 'ought' regulation might include studying for exams, doing homework, physical exercise or visiting a sick relative or elderly parent. 

With identified regulation, action begins to be integrated within the person's sense of self. For example, students who do their homework because they see it as valuable are at the identified regulation stage while those who do it just because their parents insist remain at the introjected stage. Exercise, for example, may not in itself be enjoyable for some people but is seen as good for one's health and well-being and so remains at the introjected stage. At the stage of identified regulation people see the benefits of the activity.  It is still instrumental but represents an early form of autonomy. The worker makes the value their own, understands its rationale and experiences a sense of self-determination in acting in line with it. Although identified regulation is a self-determined form of motivation, it differs from intrinsic motivation in that it is instrumental; the behaviours it leads to are not for their own sake.  

The goal of motivation should be to help people reach the stage of self -determination through gradual autonomy support, giving them chances to solve their own problems and inviting them to participate in making decisions. Ultimately we want people not to be committed to our values and rules but to be able to make their own decisions about which values and rules to embrace. The best preparation for making decisions is making decisions. Others will be more likely to internalise our values when they don't feel over-controlled. Surveillance and conditional praise damage this process insofar as they reflect external rather than self-regulation. Young people who have been given the chance to participate in family decision-making and whose parents allow a degree of independence develop a higher level of interest and enjoyment in education than those not given such opportunities.

Intrinsic motivation happens spontaneously and as such can't be coerced but it can be facilitated. Excessive pressure can backfire by undermining exploration, curiosity, creativity and spontaneity. Children's internalised ideals from adults, for example what their parents would ideally like them to be, can also be as pressing as external controls and can damage intrinsic motivation.

Parents trying to encourage their children into preferred activities are caught between a rock and a hard place as they realise that without directing them and giving enough exposure to the specific activity children won't become interested.  But they don't want to over impose their desires and have their efforts backfire and undermine the intrinsic value of the activity for the children. The compromise is a difficult balancing act.

Copyright: Alan McLean, 2006

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