The importance of autonomy for development and well-being

Edward L. Deci, Richard M. Ryan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Piaget’s many contributions to developmental psychology were extraordinary, and two of these stand out to us as being particularly important. First, the overall structure of his broad and encompassing theory of cognitive development went against the grain of most developmental approaches of that era, particularly ones within the empirical academic tradition of North American psychology that focused on phenomenon-specific mini-theories. Piaget’s theory, in contrast, comprised a wide variety of phenomena related to children’s growth – that is, to the changes in schemata that underlie their cognitive and, to a lesser extent, affective development. Second, and even more important, the theory was based on organismic assumptions about the nature of development that followed in the important trajectory of Werner’s (1948) contributions to developmental psychology. These organismic assumptions made the quality of Piaget’s work quite different from most of the empirical work in developmental psychology of that era and since. Self-determination theory (SDT), which is a theory of motivation, personality, and development, is also a macro-theory that endorses an organismic meta-theory. Similar to the organization principle within Piagetian thought, SDT maintains that there are integrative processes inherent in human nature that are relevant to learning, development, and coherently regulated action. SDT begins with a focus on intrinsic motivation, which represents a prototype of our spontaneous assimilative tendencies, and we review research showing that social-contextual conditions can either enhance or diminish intrinsic motivation as a function of whether they support versus thwart satisfaction of people’s basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We also discuss the internalization of extrinsic motivation, through which nonintrinsically motivated behaviors can become autonomously motivated. The effectiveness of internalization is also shown to be a function of basic psychological needs supports.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSelf-Regulation and Autonomy
Subtitle of host publicationSocial and Developmental Dimensions of Human Conduct
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9781139152198
ISBN (Print)9781107023697
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2005

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2013.


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