Roy Æ Hodges
Department of Psychology, Washington State University
April 29, 2023
Ethics in Psychology: Self Determination Theory (SDT),
An Abstract Model and Ethics of Motivational Modification
How individuals come to motives to resolve drives and needs is an interdisciplinary research question that is crosscut by varying perspectives of psychology, sociology, biology, economics, management, and philosophy. This question has been answered in a variety of perspectives of psychology, and applications beyond basic research is in demand. Taking a behaviorist stance, a study of motivation funded by a population behaviorally modified using reinforcers in a token economy (i.e., economy) ought to benefit said population in domains of health and well-being through primary (i.e., food, water, sleep, safety, pleasure, sex etc.) and secondary reinforcers (i.e., stores of value in fixed [e.g., currencies] or floating [e.g., stocks, real estate] market exchange in an economy).
It is arguable that stores of value include efforts in basic science where like many products of human effort are difficult to value as what is sitting on a shelf today or judged valueless, years later, may be significant in social benefit (e.g., Kinnebrook’s observational errors with respect to Maskelyne in measuring the transit times of stars leading to scientific emphasis on individual differences in epistemology of observation in sciences like psychology [Maskeyln, 1799; Sheehan, 2013; Shultz & Shultz, 2016]).
To lean on cognitive psychology, if a theory is to be of utility to social ecologies of individual, family, market, and state, then it shall be a useful cognition comprised of basic science Piagetian schemas, prototypes, and exemplars, and sets of applied science event scripts. Salient exemplars can be more easily recognized during self-control and recalled during self-regulation. In these respects, a clinical (i.e., basic/applied) practice of psychology evaluates theories efficacious and effective in resolving needs (i.e., drives) through the benefits of greater self-control, and self-regulation. To these ends and means, Deci’s (1971) early work discovered that perceptual attribution toward external rewards affected perceptions, or rather robbed individuals, of intrinsic motivation (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985a)—a powerful theory toward manipulation of motivation had begun the not only begged further work but also implies presaged ethical concerns.
This review shall operate on the assumption that SDT is neutral with respect to motivation modification, only taking on affective valence of its accelerated consequences observed in approval (i.e., norms, laws, regulations, and policies) and disapproval (i.e., deviancy/crime). Understanding of SDT complements behavior modification strategies through motivational manipulative strategies uncovered by its theoretical constructs, evidence, and application in studies. This literature review of SDT shall attempt to review existing literature, offer the beginning of a more enhanced abstract algebraic model lending toward further research, and to present ethical questions and a framework to further regulate SDT’s research and application amidst a practicum of psychology.
Groundwork for SDT: Intrinsic Motivation & Attribution
After the rise of behaviorist psychology, two perspectives had been at the forefront of psychological development: cognitive psychology emphasized stimulus-response signal processing in cognition, and humanistic psychology emphasized self and being that individuals are (Sheldon et al., 2003, p. 7). The concept that a “human self” can take on a causal role became more salient with the advent of new concepts such as “chaos theory, dynamical systems theory, and hierarchical control theory” which stress emergent properties of systems (Sheldon et al., 2003, p. 10; Deci & Ryan, 2000). Self, and multiplicity of selves (Nowak et al., 2000) had grown in discussion, and some behaviorist findings contradicted operant conditioning (e.g., mice voluntarily being electrocuted to explore, monkeys persisting with puzzles without rewards; Sheldon et al., 2003, p. 13). Robert White proposed a concept of effectance, or rather, an “innate need for mastery” and had asserted that its effect had evolutionary advantage (as cited in Sheldon et al., 2003, pp. 13–14). Intrinsic motivation was introduced to psychological vocabulary (Sheldon et al., 2003, p. 14)—in effect, stimuli and response (and consequence) had been split.
Edward Deci (1971, 1972) while researching intrinsic motivation, provided evidence that with payment as reward, spontaneous engagement with puzzles abated during observation. The explanation given by Deci was that subjects engaged in “cognitive reevaluation of the activity from one which is intrinsically motivated to one which is motivated primarily by the expectation of financial rewards” (Deci, 1971, p. 114). Based on this study and subsequent studies, Deci developed a theory of motivation (Deci, 1975) which is built on optimal arousal theories, optimal incongruity theories, and competence and self-determination theories (p. 59).
Intrinsically motivated behavior leaves a feeling of competency and self-determination (p. 61). Furthermore, intrinsic motivation is expressed in two variants: (a) seeking in the absence of stimulation, and (b) conquering in the presence of incongruous stimulation (p. 61). Deci’s review of cognitive psychology included Piaget’s assimilation of environment into cognitive structure, and accommodation of cognitive structure onto environment, and built on Piaget’s own ideas of seeking assimilation and accommodation (p. 66–67).
Because core studies of intrinsic motivation relied on determination of intrinsic vs. extrinsic attribution, Deci studied attribution extensively, that is, how individuals determine whether motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic (see Deci, 1975, pp. 241–280). Deci concluded with a bold assertion: when external causality is found, an individual will stop looking for attribution, only to infer internal causality in absence of ability to find external causality (p. 278). Furthermore, Deci asserted that even attribution itself is intrinsically motivated and influenced by affect, mindset, or extrinsic rewards (p. 279).
Deci was later joined by Richard Ryan in 1980 and together built on White’s earlier need for competence along with an organismic perspective (Sheldon et al., 2003, p. 15). Essentially, individuals struggled to “master and regulate its internal environment, its drives and impulses” (p. 16). Deci and Ryan considered not only the individual in SDT, but also that of the environment and peoples (pp. 17–19). Three basic needs emerged from subsequent collaboration from Deci and Ryan: competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). These needs are crosscut by a process that modifies a sense of self.
Internalization & Integration
SDT’s main concerns have focused on the process by which external regulation goes through a process of internalization toward internal regulation, and the subsequent integration of internal regulation with a sense of self (Deci & Ryan, 1991). Internalization and integration are asserted to be essential aspects of SDT and are comprised of social processes in context (Deci et al., 1994). The ability to manipulate internalization and integration for the purpose of increasing intrinsic motivation for applications in health, well-being, family, market, and state is notable. Concomitant processes of internalization and integration, the three needs identified by SDT are worth exposition.
Competency, Relatedness, & Autonomy
SDT is underwritten by a sub-theory of cognitive evaluation theory (CET; Deci & Ryan, 1985) which had asserted that society and contexts “conduce” feelings of competency for actions and may enhance intrinsic motivation for said action (as cited in Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 70). In research studies, positive feedback increased motivation, and negative feedback diminished it (Deci, 1975). In addition, it was found that intrinsic motivation was only enhanced when a sense of autonomy was experienced (as cited in Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 70). Threats to intrinsic motivation includes “tangible rewards… threats, deadlines, directives, pressured evaluations, and imposed goals” vs. “choice, acknowledgement of feelings, and opportunities for self-direction” (as cited in Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 70). Needs of competency and autonomy are related in research, where needs of relatedness entered via attachment behavior where secure attachment styles induced exploratory behavior (Frodi et al., 1985). Regarding need for relatedness, SDT theory asserted that a “similar dynamic occurs in interpersonal settings over the life span, with intrinsic motivation more likely to flourish in contexts characterized by a sense of security and relatedness” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 71). Secure attachment and social environments therefore had been implied as critical in either increasing or decreasing intrinsic motivation.
Literature Sample. In addition to theoretical evidence provided by originators of SDT theory, a convenience sample of several articles had been chosen covering applications and models specific to SDT for the purpose of facilitation of modification of motivation. First is Bartholemew’s (2001) study evaluating women in sports for needs of relatedness, autonomy, and competence, and its effects. The second is Huyghebaert-Zouaghi et al.’s (2022) study of leaders in organizations and measures of need supporting, thwarting, and indifferent behaviors. The third is Assor et al.’s (2018) study assessing SDT informed approaches to school intervention efforts to reduce violence, increase helpfulness, and reduce adversarial relations with teachers. The fourth Øverup et al.’s 2017 exploration of SDT’s need internalization/externalization as related to intimate partner violence (IPV). The fifth is Fischer and Schwartz’s (2011) landmark study on multicultural values, which evidenced SDT’s needs of relatedness, autonomy, and competence, offering not only evidence, but construct and convergent validity of its structure.
Analysis Paradigm. Based on this analysis, a grounded theory approach (Glaser, 2014, 1978) to memo conceptually while rejecting description to identify core categories within and across sampled literature had been conducted. Research memos had been recorded procedurally sorted to code, categorize, conjecture, infer, deduce, and resample literature using a constant comparative method. Forced memo sorts have been used when external motivations of time pressures and check ins with professors leading the course have required submission of work. Writeups were recorded in Microsoft Word, along with more detailed memos, until draft and final writeups and editing emerged.
Need Thwarting Study. In studying social-environmental conditions related to SDT, Bartholemew et al. (2011) conducted three studies exploring satisfaction or thwarting of psychological needs related to intrinsic motivation. With respect to relatedness, Bartholemew et al. (2011) interpret relatedness as “the extent to which individuals feel a secure sense of belongingness and connectedness to others in their social environment” (p. 1460). Unlike prior research, this study explored “nonoptimal or darker sides” of humanity that thwart basic psychological needs, leading to defensive or self-protective accommodation (as cited in Bartholemew et al., 2011, p. 1460).
Bartholemew et al.’s first study focused on female athletes of aesthetic sports and weight-related sports between 16 and 25 (N=303; p. 1461). Autonomy-supportive behaviors were evaluated along with perceptions of a coach’s controlling behavior, need satisfaction, need thwarting, disordered eating, vitality, and depression (p. 1462). The second study focused on 80 males and 214 females (N=294) in athletics, swimming, and team sports and used S-IgA sampling to record chronic stress (p. 1464). Evaluations similar to the first study were used, along with burnout symptomology, and positive/negative affect (p. 1464). The third study used males and female athlete (N=61) diary entries regarding positive affect, negative affect, and physical symptoms from training sessions (p. 1466). Coach behaviors were evaluated, along with an assessment of psychological needs and well-being/ill-being (p. 1467). The three-part study supported the link between autonomy support, need satisfaction, and well-being. In review of the third study’s results, utility in measuring SDT’s needs and functioning/being is strongly evidenced (p. 1469).
Supervisors & Employees. Opening with a famous line “people do not leave their jobs… they leave their managers”, Huyghebaert-Zouaghi et al. (2022) explored manager/employee relationships to determine an alternate framework for leadership evaluation (p. 3). The study’s authors sought to examine whether an SDT approach developed in a sport context would provide an alternate perspective to guide supervisor behavior and questionnaire validity, and worker perception of supervisor and experience of needs (Bhavsar et al., 2019, p. 8). The study used online participants (N = 350) from the UK, USA, or Canada (p. 9). This study demonstrated that SDT offers a possible alternate paradigm for understanding leadership behavior and demonstrated “preliminary evidence supporting the factor validity of a measure of supervisors’ need supportive, thwarting, and indifferent behaviors” (p. 11). Leadership supportive of SDT needs in facilitating autonomy, relatedness, and competence demonstrated positive outcomes.
School Intervention Study. An effectiveness study for the Personal and Social Growth (PSG) program built on SDT concepts had been introduced as a 22-month program with three intervention schools and three control schools (Assor et al., 2018). The program contained psychoeducation on autonomy suppression/control and limit setting/structure, and autonomy motivation/internalization, affect/behavior outcomes of levels of motivation/internalization, motivation/internalization satisfaction and frustration, and teacher behaviors influencing the former (p. 197). Additional program components included student assessment and feedback for goal setting/change; support for program implementation, resources, and training; and group sessions supporting feedback and changes to the program (pp. 197–199). In comparison to control groups, intervention groups subject to SDT informed practices exhibited increased perception of caring in classmates, increased affective response to violence, decreased perception of controlling teachers, and decrease in physical violence, though effect sizes were small (pp. 206–207). Due to many limitations of the study, some questions as to the small effect size remain, but early findings offer insights into future attempts to apply SDT in scholastic and violence prone settings.
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). IPV is a serious issue in society and is a most common form of violence against women, and includes “physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and controlling behaviors by an intimate partner” (World Health Organization, 2012). In exploration of an autonomous orientation toward relationships serving as a protective factor vs. controlled motivation, Øverup et al. (2017) aimed to study motivation orientation and IPV reactance (p. 141). Three studies aimed at exploring the relationship (p. 141). Sufficient evidence was acquired that autonomous and controlled orientations predict reactive IPV perpetration (p. 151). Autonomous motivation was associated with less perpetrations of IPV, and control motivation with greater perpetration of IPV (p. 151). While the study initially explored constructs of SDT, several limitations are known in the measures used (e.g., GCOS, RCOS), predominantly female participants, an underpowered study, and reapproach of a third “voodoo doll” study which resulted in contradictory findings (p. 153). However, the study did support SDT constructs in an area that is highly troubling to society and women. That a sense of autonomous motivation reduced IPV, is instructive toward interventions facilitating SDT needs of autonomy.
Cross-Cultural Values. Fischer and Schwartz (2011) investigated prioritization of values examining for shared values cross-culturally between 67 countries using variations in methodologies to measure values (p. 1130). Central to the study was an assessment of variability extents within and across groups (i.e., within and across societies; p. 1129). Three studies were executed using the Schwartz Value Survey (SVS; 1992), Portrait Value Questionnaire (PVQ; Schwartz 2006, Schwartz et al., 2001), and World Value Survey (WVS; Inglehart, 1997). Using SVS, the top five values in analysis with the highest within-country agreement had been measured as intelligence, capable, responsible, loyal, and helpful (Fischer & Schwartz, 2011, p. 1134). PVQ measured within-country agreement had reported top three values as benevolence, universalism, and self-direction (p. 1135). WVS measured within-country agreement reported the top value with least variation as “self-rated happiness” (p. 1136). Within general discussion, results of the study were interpreted to lend support for values related to SDT’s emphasis on competence, relatedness, and autonomy (pp. 1139–1140).
Regarding strategies for motivation modification, it appears that a model is offered in studies reviewed in addition to evidence already acquired through SDT development. In studying supervisors and workers, a new paradigm for evaluation of leaders is coming to light. In reviewing a pilot program for applying SDT principals in classrooms, namely ones with violence, SDT offers a compelling approach. In the troubling reality of IPV, SDT offers its constructs to protective effects against IPV in relationships. Between these three studies in workplaces, education, and family life, there is sufficient evidence to develop new strategies for behavior modification. While competency, autonomy, and relatedness may be clear candidate for cognitive restructuring within the realm of cognitive/behaviorally informed therapies, it goes without saying that the antecedent social support (i.e., relatedness) and consequences (i.e., social need thwarting/need helping) may benefit from some additional operationalization in terms of what social support is, and what social consequences are.
In review, literature on SDT is vivid, growing daily, and has evidenced a transition from basic to applied sciences. With respect to application, it is worth considering an operational model for SDT in measuring applied benefits in reducing spatial, temporal, and effort to arrive at homeostasis sooner rather than later. Based in efforts at greater operationalization, this is presented herein as a model for measuring for prediction, and subsequent explanation SDT for application.
An Emerging SDT Model
Beyond standard statistical analysis used in psychology, a model may be developed with respect to abstract algebra as it demonstrates ability to model neural geometries in higher dimensional spaces lending to voxel space transformations [redacted] instead of standard cartesian coordinate systems of proximodistal and cephalocaudal origination to account for variances in temporal geometries of relative time-of-flight curvatures in n-dimensional (e.g., planar, cubic etc.) signal paths amidst neural topologies.
The internalization of external regulations (En) to internal regulations (In) may be represented as a field transform (f : En → In) and may be signified simply as an independent variable of velocity of said transform (IVE→I), where analysis examines for ΔIVE→I. The manipulation of an integration of internal regulations (In) with the sense of self (S) may be represented through congruence (In ≡ S) and may be signified as an independent variable of said congruence IVIn ≡ S, where analysis examines for ΔIVIn ≡ S. The dependent variable measuring spatial, temporal, and effort distance as fields of need homeostasis (DH) maybe represented by DVDH, though DH may be better represented by instantaneous measures that are far beyond skills of the author in translating to established standards of abstract algebra. Further elaboration on this model would be greatly useful in matters of health and well-being in offering a mathematical model for the purpose of developing apparatus to measure these variables for real-time feedback in therapeutic and [redacted] environments.
While a more complex mediation model less reliant on abstract algebra may introduce opportunities for standard statistical tests in psychology, that is outside the scope of this article. The advantage to more proper, and rapid testing would reduce turnaround time in individual and group feedback where individuals may find themselves in situations where one would wish to resist internalizations and integrations (e.g., deviancy, buffering, protective effects) associated with attempts to modify self-concept through motivational manipulations, in this case mediator variables respective to each would be helpful. These variables would most likely be subject to a factor analysis utilizing Markov chains etc. as there are most likely a plurality of variables moderating integrating, internalizing, and spatial, temporal, and effort distance to need homeostasis.
Thankfully SDT’s three aspects of competency, relatedness, and autonomy may be located in variables of IVE→Iand IVIn ≡ S. However, measures of DVDH are more difficult to measure because it would effectively require measure of spatial, temporal, and effort distance traveled in entropic deflection toward homeostasis in need. This all goes without saying that external spatial, temporal, and effort distance traveled in the inputs to modify IVE→I and IVIn ≡ Swould also be required, as this extends the model to account for cost/benefit analysis of therapies reliant on SDT approaches for the purpose of knowledge transfer to market business models.
Effectively a more complete model would look like: [redacted], to account for modification chains in sliding tile scenarios of motivational displacement in social network graphs. Now having presented a more complete model, it is prudent to pair it with it a warning as to ethical constraints on its clear and present promise/danger in social engineering applications; like any drug or therapy SDT models may be a benefit, or a poison (or worse yet, a toxin).
To add to the stable of strategies for behavior modification, are strategies for motivation modification, offering a double-arm’s length (i.e., doubly obfuscated) distance between a manipulator and a manipulated. In this regard, an ethical dilemma is considered. Is it ethical to arm markets empowered by sophisticated tools of automation further straining peoples subject to extreme rise in inequality in income, wealth, health, and well-being? Ethical questions abound; therefore, it would seem worthy and necessary to explore SDT’s applications in more sophisticated model with the expressed purpose to facilitate protective effects in motivational manipulations that may risk the health and well-being of the public. In review, Huyghebaert-Zouaghi et al.’s (2022) study is, in this author’s opinion, bordering on ethical question in its findings potential for application in the manipulation of selves of those employed to become more aligned to employer interests. That there is no “police force” monitoring near-covert manipulative interactions between employees and employers in vast empires of workplaces of firewalled off enclaves of billions of square feet of space begs the question of who benefits most from knowledge and application of motivational manipulation, and how is it monitored?
That said, Øverup et al.’s (2017) study regarding IPV and Assor et al.’s (2018) study may offer an ethically palpable applications in the reduction of intimate partner violence through relatively effective applications of reattribution as informed by SDT findings. That attribution through introjection, internalization, and modification of self[-concept] can alter violent behavior is profound, but again, the borders are murky. As asserted at opening, SDT is neutral, and it may be useful in the hands of unethical attitudes as well as ethical attitudes. To flip this on its side, is it possible that the increasing polarization in the 2000s is less about polarization and more about reattribution to externalities concomitant violence might offer future researchers some salient and socially relevant themes attractive to grants and social support.
Ethical and Unethical Motivational Hacking
In response to ethical questions on motivational modification, now it is worth calling for increasing the public’s awareness of motivational manipulation through SDT’s processes of introjection, internalization, and self-modification. That competency, relatedness, and autonomy are salient themes in the identification of attribution of intrinsic motivations, yet open to potential for motivational hacking by external forces, as the originators of SDT discovered increases demand for additional securities for individuals to find protective effects against said hacking—motivational hacking therefore may come in several varieties: ethical motivational hacking, unethical motivational hacking in public spheres; and red, blue, yellow, purple, green, orange, and white teams in greater contexts of national mental health security organizations.
Unfortunately, with regards to motivation, the definition of ethical and unethical may change depending on culture, and the range of said hacking’s effects. It is arguable that ethical motivational hacking with respect to mental health regards increasing the health and well-being to death rather than short term modification of motivation to reduce violence of individuals subject to increasing strains and stresses through exploitation of their vulnerabilities leading to diminished well-being across longer time horizons obfuscating said exploitation in communities exploited, and then jumping to another situation and repeating the same in a new form.
In close, SDT offers a powerful theory, that is being investigated widely, however it is worth stopping to ask, at what cost? In a field where psychologists desire to avoid harm, this commitment and ethic has been evidenced to be lacking in increasing inequality in income, and wealth necessary for autonomy; increasing threats against health and well-being for those enduring mass-incarceration and de-industrialization; and a public subject to toxic polarization and daily reminders of the criticality that they live in day in and day out. Therefore, it is the duty of psychology to engage in not only ethical action, but restorative action to right not only the unethical modification of a public’s behavior for greater inequality, but restitutive action to correct for the compounding effects as a result of unethical modification of a public’s behavior and motivation that has arrived at today’s inequality. Psychology is a study of power, and it is a power that is best in the hands of… and that is for the reader to decide—such is intrinsic motivation in democratic states [of being].
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