Self Determination Theory(SDT) posits that all humans require some nutriments to grow and develop; just like plants need nutriments like sunlight, water, nutrients etc to flourish, so do humans have some basic human needs for autonomy, competence, relatedness and meaningfulness (my addition) to develop and grow and thrive. If these needs are fulfilled (just like if the plants get sunlight , water and nutrients) then this leads to good outcomes like enhanced well being and optimal functioning and good relationships and purpose in life. However, if the needs are thwarted then ill-being and soured relationships, stagnation and nihilism may prevail.
SDT also posits that the sociocultural environment and situations and contexts can be more or less supportive of the basic psychological needs. If the sociocultural environment and situation/ context is more supportive of autonomy, competence, relatedness and meaning, then that leads to more growth and flourishing and better development over time.
Let’s just expand on this a little. We will consider basic psychological needs in infancy and childhood and see what activities or systems are involved in their satisfactions and what consequences it may have on the developmental trajectory.
Consider the need for autonomy; an infant/ child is typically exploratory and unless constrained exercises his/ her choice by exploring the environment. The parent has to set some limits on exploration to prevent harm and thus this conflicts with the child’s need for autonomy. Early on they learn that exploring unknown territories can lead to adverse outcomes and if parents are too permissive they quickly learn the emotion of fear. On the other hand they also have an intrinsic motivation associated with the emotion of interest that makes them find novel things and places attractive and hence worth exploring. If their need for autonomy is reasonably honored, they quickly form a concept of SELF that is distinct from caregiver. They realize, and start regulating, their emotions and an autonomy supportive environment leads to their emotional development. In terms of Erikson’s stage theories, they successfully navigate the autonomy vs shame and doubt stage.
Consider next the need for competence; an infant/ child typically likes to explore the limits of what they can do/ hope to do via play – both physical and symbolic. The parents/ adults typically provide some feedback on what is acceptable in terms of play to ensure that the right types of play are being indulged in to develop adult capability. For eg, if an infant tries to walk before crawling they will support the age appropriate crawling related play first. Early on infants/ children realize that playing in a free wheeling manner may lead to disappointment and sadness. On the other hand they also have an intrinsic motivation associated with the emotion of enjoyment that makes them find novel activities and objects interesting and worth playing with. If their need for competence is reasonably honored, they quickly become TASK-oriented, rather than ego oriented while indulging in any activity. They realize and start regulating their behaviors and a competence supportive environment leads to their physical and behavioral development. In terms of Erikson’s stage theories they successfully navigate industry vs inferiority stage.
Consider now the relatedness need; an infant/child is typically attuned to others and comes ready to be imprinted upon and have attachment with one or more caregivers. The infant/ child comes vulnerable and needy (the infant needs milk while the child needs say love) and greedy and the parent/ caregiver may regulate the care and attention and time they can devote to the child. Early on, when the needs are not met consistently or are contingent, the infant/ child learns to be (passive) aggressive and angry towards the attachment figure and learns to avoid contact. On the other hand the infant/child is driven by an intrinsic motivation associated with the emotion of love that makes them approach familiar people (parents/ teachers) and contexts(home/school) and worth building attachments with. If their need for relatedness is reasonably honored, they quickly become PEOPLE focused, considering people as ends rather than instrumental means to any outcomes.They realize and start regulating their relationships and a relatedness supportive environment leads to their social and moral development. In terms of Erikson’s stage theories they successfully navigate trust vs mistrust stage.
Lastly, consider the need for meaningfulness; an infant /child is typically a scientist-in-the-crib and comes ready to make sense of and interpret events and happenings and exercise agency and learn. The infant comes eager and curious and active and the parent may restrict some actions (like touching the genitals) that may lead to feelings of guilt and disgust in the infant/ child. On the other hand, the infant/ child is driven by an intrinsic motivation that is driven by the emotion of wonder and he/ she systemically and scientifically experiments with the surroundings and tries to find causal relations and have an impact and learn. If the need for meaning is reasonably honored, they quickly become WORLD focused, being ecological aware and seeing how they fit in. They realize and start regulating their cognition and a meaning supportive environment leads to their intellectual development. In terms of Erikson’s stage theories they successfully navigate initiative vs guilt stage.
In an nutshell, what I am proposing is that there are four systems revolving around exploration (autonomy), play (competence), attachment (relatedness) and learning (meaning) in the infants/ child that also give rise to the emotion pairs of fear/interest, sadness/enjoyment, anger/love and guilt/wonder that may sustain in adulthood also in a slightly transformed way. Also these may conceivable be related to the four major goals of Emotional well-being/positivity, Success/productivity, Morality/intimacy and Meaning/generativity.
I will rest my case here. In the next post I will actually go into what makes for an autonomy supportive, competence supportive, relatedness supportive and meaning supportive sociocultural context