Useful Theory: Self-Determination

Illustration of a doodle with a mustache, whistling and carrying a stick with a carrot hanging from it, as other doodles excitedly chase behind, trying to grab the carrot.

Everyone from teachers to government leaders to parents knows that the right carrot or stick can be a powerful motivator. Want to get an A on that history exam? Study extra hard. Looking to avoid a parking ticket? Feed the meter. Don’t want a timeout? Give your sister a turn with the pirate hat and the plastic sword.

But outside factors aren’t the only forces at play, dear readers — sometimes, we do positive things just because we want to or because it makes us feel good. This natural (or intrinsic) motivation is at the core of self-determination theory.

The gist: When we’re naturally motivated toward a goal, we show more effort and persistence in achieving it — so we’re more likely to be successful.

Intrinsic motivation depends on 3 things that we all crave.

  • Autonomy: We want to be in control of our actions
  • Competence: We want to be good at stuff
  • Relatedness: We want to feel understood and like we belong

Unfortunately, we often feel ambivalent about making positive changes because, let’s face it, many changes (like quitting smoking or overhauling your diet) are really hard. We all need social support to realize our potential.

One great technique for helping people discover their inner motivation is motivational interviewing, a type of clinical counseling that relies on open-ended questions and reflective listening. The goal of motivational interviewing is to help people resolve their ambivalence so they feel ready to move toward a goal.

Of course, when you’re writing health information for the masses, you don’t have the luxury of one-on-one sessions to unlock each user’s inner motivation. But you can still apply the basic principles of self-determination theory to your content by:

  • Acknowledging that change is hard
  • Making it clear that people have a choice to make a healthy change (or not)
  • Giving them specific tips and tools for tackling the new behavior
  • Boosting their confidence

Armed with a sense of control, a few useful tools, and some compassion and encouragement, your users will have a much better shot at finding the motivation they need to achieve their goals.

The bottom line: Use self-determination theory to help people discover their inner motivation to make healthy changes.