The Newest Take on Personality Disorders Focuses on Motives

Motivational theory can provide a new way to understand personality disorders.

Posted Nov 13, 2018

Why do some people become narcissistic and others develop humility? What leads some children to feel chronically inferior and others to feel fulfilled even with their flaws? If we had answers to these questions, everyone’s life would be a great deal simpler, not to mention better. Personality disorders might also become more understandable with this knowledge. 

Understanding the “why’s” of behavior is one of psychology’s greatest challenges. Can we truly explain what leads people to be nice to each other, to work hard, to be creative—on the one—or to engage in self-destructive, violent, and antisocial behavior? How do you know whether to trust the other people you interact with or whether to trust even your own motives? How can you be more productive and worry less?

The theory in motivational psychology known as “self-determination theory (SDT)” has provided a broad, overarching framework that explains the reasons people behave as they do. Beginning with the observation several decades ago that children will be more creative if they are not given concrete rewards for doing so, University of Rochester psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan went on to formulate SDT as an approach with broad applications to educational and occupational settings. The counterintuitive idea that it’s better not to give people tangible rewards for engaging in behaviors they enjoy became known as “motivational crowding out.” Those tangible rewards are the so-called “extrinsic” motivators such as money, recognition, or the benefits of a comfortable work environment and vacations. These contrast with the “intrinsic” rewards of feeling good about what you’re doing and expressing your own identity, autonomy, and competence. Motivational crowding out occurs when your intrinsic desires to engage in an activity become focused not on the activity but on the outcomes it can provide. You’ll work harder, according to this view, if you’re trying to fulfill your own inner needs than if you’re trying to earn a paycheck or get good grades.

All of this might seem like pie-in-the-sky thinking given that if people didn’t get grades or paychecks, they would have trouble surviving. SDT was developed to overcome this logical inconsistency by expanding the list of possible human motives from the intrinsic-extrinsic dimension to one that allows for people to work for extrinsic rewards while still feeling they are achieving self-expression and an inner sense of satisfaction. In a new paper, Richard Ryan along with Bart Soenens of Ghent University (2018), provide an overview of SDT with commentary on articles written for a special issue of the Journal of Personality regarding the potential for SDT to help understand individual differences. SDT has previously been viewed as a general theory of motivation, with little attention to its possible relationship to personality. Papers published in the special issue of this journal attempt to bridge the gap by showing how some people are more likely to work toward inner-directed goals, for example, than others.

As Ryan and Soenens point out, “A substantial body of research, including experiments as well as controlled trials, attests to SDT’s potential for fostering sustained behavior and wellness.” Reformulating intrinsic and extrinsic motivation into the dynamic of controlling behavior from the “inside” or the “outside,” SDT proposes that autonomy (inner control) represents “full functioning,” or complete engagement in what you’re doing. By contrast, feeling controlled by others creates a disconnect in which you lose that full throttle of involvement in what you’re doing. As an example, think about the last time you were so focused on completing a report not because your boss wanted it done but because you wanted to make sure it was done thoroughly and correctly. Or perhaps you were decorating cupcakes for a party and went far beyond the minimum plain white frosting with sprinkles needed to satisfy the other guests. You may have been refinishing your porch and wanted every board to be perfectly stained, even those no one can see. In these instances, you are completing a task that will bring some sort of benefit, but you drove yourself to go above and beyond the minimum. This is the experience that characterizes autonomously motivated behavior.

Relatedness is another key area within SDT. People have needs for close, affectionate relationships with others that exist independently of the needs to feel competent and in control of their behavior. Thus, whether at work or at home, you do not put forth your efforts in isolation.  Even if your job is one you could perform entirely from the comfort of your kitchen table, you would still feel that it’s important to be in the presence of your coworkers, at least some of the time. Your desire to bake cupcakes stems not just from your wishing to express your artistic desires in clever designs related to the party's theme, but also to give people something they will enjoy eating.

As they critique the articles in the journal’s special issue, Deci and Soenens reflect on a variety of questions regarding the validity and generalizability of SDT. Regarding personality specifically, the authors address a paper in the issue on narcissism and SDT. They note that “pervasive need frustration during development can precipitate deficits in capacities for self-regulation and social connection.” The needs that drive people high in narcissism are what the authors call “deficit needs,” in which their desire for self-esteem becomes an all-consuming focus. They seek glory not because they feel an inner pressure to excel, but because they need to be recognized by others for their accomplishments. Early in life, they learned that the only way to be loved by their parents was to do well in their eyes. Their parents, in turn, show the narcissistic parenting styles of being overly controlling while also showing “excessive love.” Early research within the SDT framework indeed suggested when children are not given the opportunity to express their own autonomous needs, “they turn toward extrinsic values to obtain a sense of power, self-importance, and worth.”

As important as it is to have the support of your parents for developing your own interests and abilities, apart from needing to meet their grand desires for you, it’s true that not everyone develops the same personalities in response to the deprivation of these needs. According to SDT, once you know which needs are thwarted, however, you’ll be in a better position to predict which personality traits might be strengthened in the growing child. A more fine-grained analysis of “need-thwarting,” in other words, will help specify whether the individual becomes overly self-critical and perfectionistic by, for example, overly blunt and domineering parents. By contrast, being raised by parents who are rejecting or cold, will thwart the child’s ability to develop strong relationship motivation.

To sum up, although motivational and personality theories don’t always allow for a harmonizing mixture, they don’t have to be like psychological oil and water either. Not everyone will have the exact same needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Learning why some individuals become narcissistic and grandiose but others are humble, cooperative, and generous through an SDT lens may provide new ways to examine the developmental path of long-term fulfillment.


Ryan, R.M. & Soenens, B. (2018). Reflections on self-determination theory as an organizing framework for personality psychology: Interfaces, integrations, issues, and unfinished business. Journal of Personality, doi: 10.1111/jopy.12240.