Understanding clients’ motivation is key in helping to promote personal integration, growth, and change. SDT research on psychotherapy has found, for example, that it makes a difference whether a person freely chooses to start or continue in therapy because it’s personally important to them, or whether they feel forced or pressured into doing so. In other words, whether one’s motivation for therapy is more internal, or more external, matters. But motivation, of course, can change over time, and part of that has to do with the quality of the relationship between the client and the therapist. As well, there is also a lot that we are only now starting to learn about the link between people’s psychological needs and the kind of problems they may be struggling with in life. It’s possible that many of the struggles we encounter can be traced, at least in part, to experiences in which our basic needs (for relationships, for feelings of competence, for opportunities to make personally meaningful choices) are not or cannot be satisfied.

In Practice

When clients feel listened to, valued, and understood by their therapist, they are more likely to engage in counseling for reasons that feel personally important and self-chosen. This also seems to be the case as they begin to feel more confident, in the course of therapy, that change is possible for them. Again, we are learning a lot about how the way that client and counselor work together makes a difference in the therapy; in other words, the quality of their relationship matters. As well, learning new ways to meet one’s needs for relationships, competence, and choice can be part of the work of therapy, from an SDT perspective.


  • SDT suggests that motivation matters: why a person chooses to come to therapy, to continue in therapy, or to stop therapy, makes a difference.
  • Outcomes generally seem to be better when choices are made for reasons that are more internal (personally valued, freely made) than more external (under threat or feelings of pressure or control).
  • Basic needs for relationships, for competence, and for choice are important; living in circumstances that don’t provide opportunities to satisfy these needs, whether in the short term or in the long term, can have a negative impact on one’s well-being.
  • Within the framework of SDT, a therapist can help the client to explore their reasons for coming to therapy, and can work with the client to identify and to practice new ways to satisfy their needs for relationships, competence, and choice, when it seems that deprivation in one or more of those areas may be at the root of their current problems.

Psychotherapy and Counseling

Research Reports

Lynch, M. F. (2013). Attachment, autonomy, and emotional reliance: A multilevel model. Journal of Counseling and Development, 91, 301-312. doi: 10.1002/j.1556-6676.2013.00098.x

Zuroff, D. C., Koestner, R., & Moskowitz, D. S. (2012). Therapist's autonomy support and patient's self-criticism predict motivation during brief treatments for depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31, 903-932. doi: 10.1521/jscp.2012.31.9.903

Dwyer, L. A., Hornsey, M. J., Smith, L. G., Oei, T. P., & Dingle, G. A. (2011). Participant autonomy in cognitive behavioral group therapy: An integration of self-determination and cognitive behavioral theories. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 30, 24-46.

McBride, C., Zuroff, D. C. , Ravitz, P., Koestner, R., Moskowitz, D. S., Quilty, L., & Bagby, R. M. (2010). Autonomous and controlled motivation and interpersonal therapy for depression: Moderating role of recurrent depression. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 49, 529–545.

Kennedy, K., & Gregoire, T. K. (2009). Theories of motivation in addiction treatment: Testing the relationship of the transtheoretical model of change and self-determination theory. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 9, 163-183.

Kennedy, K., & Gregoire, T. K. (2009). Theories of motivation in addiction treatment: Testing the relationship of the transtheoretical model of change and self-determination theory. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 9, 163-183.

Vandereycken, W., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2009). Let eating disorder patients decide: Providing choice may reduce early drop-out from inpatient treatment. European Eating Disorders Review, 17, 177-183.

Britton, P. C., Williams, G. C., & Conner, K. R. (2008). Self-determination theory, motivational interviewing, and the treatment of clients with acute suicidal ideation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64, 52-66.

Zuroff, D. C., Koestner, R., Moskowitz, D. S., McBride, C., Bagby, M., & Marshall, M. (2007). Autonomous motivation for therapy: A new non-specific predictor of outcome in brief treatments of depression. Psychotherapy Research, 17, 137-148.

Lewis, M. A., Neighbors, C., & Malheim, J. E. (2006). Indulgence or restraint?  Gender differences in the relationship between controlled orientation and the erotophilia-risky sex link. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 985-995.

Zeldman, A., Ryan, R. M., & Fiscella, K. (2004). Client motivation, autonomy support and entity beliefs: Their role in methadone maintenance treatment. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 675-696.

Pelletier, L. G., Tuson, K. M., & Haddad, N. K. (1997). Client Motivation for Therapy Scale: A measure of intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and amotivation for therapy. Journal of Personality Assessment, 68, 414-435.

Ryan, R. M., Plant, R. W., & O'Malley, S. (1995). Initial motivations for alcohol treatment: Relations with patient characteristics, treatment involvement and dropout. Addictive Behaviors, 20, 279-297.

Chapters, Overviews, and Commentaries

Carter, J. A. (2011). Changing light bulbs: Practice, motivation, and autonomy. The Counseling Psychologist, 39, 261– 266.

Tee, J., & Kazantzis, N. (2011). Collaborative empiricism in cognitive therapy: A definition and theory for the relationship construct. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 18, 47-61.

Overholser, J. C. (2011). Collaborative empiricism, guided discovery, and the Socratic method: Core processes for effective cognitive therapy. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 18, 62–66.

Smith, L. (2011). Self determination theory and potential applications to alcohol and drug abuse behaviors. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 55, 3-7.

Groshkova, T. (2010). Motivation in substance misuse treatment. Addiction Research and Theory, 18, 494-510.

Abbott, P. (2008). Another step towards understanding recovery?. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 14, 366-368.

Neighbors, C., Walker, D. D., Roffman, R. A., Bmilinyi, L. F., & Edleson, J. L. (2008). Self determination theory and motivational interviewing: Complementary models to elicit voluntary engagement by partner-abusive men. American Journal of Family Therapy, 36, 126-136.

Gurland, S. T., & Grolnick, W. S. (2008). Building rapport with children: Effects of adults’ expected, actual, and perceived behavior. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27, 226-253.

Mancini,, A. D. (2008). Self-determination theory: A framework for the recovery paradigm. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment., 14, 358-365.

Neighbors, C., Lewis, M. A., Fossos, N., & Grossbard, J. R. (2007). Motivation and risk behaviors: A self-determination perspective. In L. V. Brown (Ed.), Psychology of motivation (pp. 99-113). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc..

Patterson, P. G., & Joseph, S. (2007). Person-centered personality theory: Support from self-determination theory and positive psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 47, 117- 139.

Lynch, M. F., & Levers, L. L. (2007). Ecological-transactional and motivational perspectives in counseling. In J. Gregoire &, C. Jungers(Eds.), The counselor's companion: What every beginning counselor needs to know (pp. 586-605). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Markland, D., Ryan, R. M., Tobin, V. J., & Rollnick, S. (2005). Motivational interviewing and self-determination theory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 811-831.

Sheldon, K. M., Williams, G. C., & Joiner, T. (2003). Self-determination theory in the clinic: Motivating physical and mental health. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Joiner, T. E., Sheldon, K. M., Williams, G. C., & Pettit, J. (2003). The integration of self-determination principles and scientifically informed treatments is the next tier. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 318-319.

Sheldon, K. M., Joiner, T. E., Pettit, J. W., & Williams, G. C. (2003). Reconciling humanistic ideals and scientific clinical practice. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 302-315.