How and why do psychological needs influence our behavior?

Published on: Feb 8, 2021

A large part of the population tries to satisfy other people through their own actions and in the course of this compromises are made, as their own behavior then often does not correspond to their own goals and values. This often manifests itself in a lack of energy and general lethargy, as well as a feeling of discomfort in one’s own social environment. People are then quickly frustrated and dissatisfied with their own situation, but it is not easy to escape this negative spiral. However, it is conceivable that this phenomenon can be easily explained from a psychological perspective. Therefore, this blog post will look at what psychological needs people have and how they affect our behavior.


All content and statements within the blog posts are researched to the best of our knowledge and belief and, if possible, presented in an unbiased manner. If sources are used, they are indicated. Nevertheless, we explicitly point out that the content should not be understood as facts, but only as a suggestion and thought-provoking ideas for the own research of the readers. We assume no liability for the accuracy and/or completeness of the content presented.

Another motivation theory approach is the self-determination theory (SDT), which was mainly coined by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. While most motivation theories only distinguish between the motivated and the non-motivated state, SDT goes one step further and also considers different manifestations of the motivational state. SDT begins by assuming that people have three basic psychological needs that must be satisfied in the context of intentional action. People have the need to be free in their own actions and behaviors and to make self-determined decisions (autonomy). In addition, they strive to have the feeling that they can control the results of their own actions and the associated outcomes (competece). This experience of competence enables them to strive for and achieve their best performance. Finally, humans are social beings and have a need for social integration or belonging (relatedness). This social relatedness with other persons or groups of persons is expressed, for example, in the ability to care for other people. If all three needs are satisfied, this improves health, increases well-being, and can have an energizing effect.¹ In addition, SDT is based on a slightly different understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Whereas intrinsically motivated actions are performed because value is ascribed to the action itself, extrinsically motivated actions are performed because of their instrumentality to achieve a specific outcome. Although intrinsic motivation is considered the prototype of self-determined action, and extrinsic incentives are often assumed to undermine the sense of self-determination, it should be noted here that the two forms of motivation should not be understood as a pair of opposites in this aspect. Indeed, an important insight of SDT is that, under certain conditions, extrinsically motivated action can also be self-determined.²

The approach of SDT is such that the theory takes into account the different manifestations of external influences. Such influences range from controlled motivation to autonomous motivation. Within this continuum, external influences are delineated in terms of the type of regulation. The strongest form of controlled motivation occurs when behavior is externally regulated. Such regulation can be, for example, the promise of a reward or the threat of a punishment. Introjected regulation exhibits a lower level of control. Here, behavior is not controlled by an explicit consequence from the outside, but rather by an internal pressure arising from external circumstances. Introjected regulation thus controls behavior in that people actively try to avoid negative feelings, such as guilt or shame. An autonomous motivational character can be achieved when one’s behaviors are controlled by identified or integrated regulation. In this context, the individual goals and the own values of the acting persons are of particular importance. While an appreciation of one’s own behavior is sufficient in the case of identified regulation, integrated regulation requires coherence between the behavior controlled by external influences and one’s own goals and values. Such coherence increases the degree of autonomy with respect to motivation, even if one’s own behavior remains partially regulated by external influences.³ Consequently, extrinsic incentives can be transformed into autonomous motivation through internalization and integration and promote a sense of self-determination. In addition to the individual stages of extrinsic motivation, the continuum of self-determination is also supplemented by amotivation (lack of motivation) and intrinsic motivation, which can be regarded as the highest form of autonomous motivation and is always consistent with the idea of self-determination.

Many people intuitively assign a high value to self-determined behavior. Even if such value attributions often take place subconsciously and perhaps cannot be explained by everyone themselves, there are a large number of scientific studies that have come to the conclusion that satisfying the three basic psychological needs and experiencing self-determination promotes people’s own mental and physical health and improves their general well-being. This could be due in particular to the fact that self-determined action does not require any compromises. One’s own behavior is consistent with one’s individual values and goals and does not need to be controlled or influenced by controlled motivation from the outside. This reduces mental stress and simplifies consistent action. In addition, psychological needs form the energetic basis for motivational actions. Autonomous motivation is characterized by a higher efficiency compared to controlled motivation, which can be observed in practice especially with regard to one’s own perseverance and problem-solving ability. Autonomous motivation is accompanied by a higher degree of goal commitment, which leads to the fact that people do not change their behavior when difficulties or delays occur, but remain committed to the goals and, if necessary, even increase their individual efforts. Lastly, it should be noted here that the promotion of autonomous action makes it possible to create an environment in which people are able to motivate themselves in a sustainable manner.

Self-determination is also important within organizations or in the work environment. Organizations are able to increase the performance of organizational members if they create the necessary framework conditions so that those involved can satisfy the three basic psychological needs. First of all, it is important that employees – in their respective roles – are free to make decisions regarding their actions and that self-determined behavior is also approved by managers. They can also reinforce the experience of competence with the help of positive feedback, as this makes it clear that the self-determined actions were suitable for solving the problem or task in question. The need of all participants for social inclusion and belonging can be satisfied in the professional world by performing tasks in groups and by the respective team members recognizing the competencies of the others and supporting them to develop and grow. The creation of an autonomy-promoting environment, as well as the reduction of bureaucratic restrictions and the reduction of micro-management by superiors, can thus sustainably improve the performance of entire organizations.

People have a strong need for autonomy and, as social beings, strive for social inclusion. Together with the experience of competence, these are the fundamental psychological needs that people have to satisfy in the course of their actions. To avoid contradictory behavior, it is important that one’s own social environment promotes autonomy and competence and that external influences do not undermine self-determination. The same applies to the professional world and cooperation in organizations. In an environment where people receive support in meeting their psychological needs, they are more satisfied, healthier, and more productive. Otherwise, the lack of need satisfaction can lead to health problems and general unhappiness.

¹ Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). “Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being”. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

² Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). “Die Selbstbestimmungstheorie der Motivation und ihre Bedeutung für die Pädagogik“. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 39(2), 223-238.

³ Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). “Self‐determination theory and work motivation”. Journal of Organizational behavior, 26(4), 331-362.

More Posts