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BREQ - The Theory

The self-determination continuum described in Deci & Ryan's (1985, 1991) organismic integration theory represents differences in the ways in which people's behaviour can be regulated and how these differences are experienced. The following fictitious mini-biographies illustrate these different forms of behavioural regulation in exercise contexts.


June is a charity worker. She has not taken any regular exercise since leaving school and has unhappy memories of cold, wet and windy days on the school playing field being yelled at by her PE teacher. She feels that exercising would have little effect on her fitness and health and so sees no point in taking it up now. June says: "I think I am pretty fit for my age, anyway. And I've never had any serious health problems. I don't smoke or drink and I eat well. I think those things are far more important than exercise as far as health is concerned. In any case, you hear all the time about these fitness fanatics who are always in the gym or jogging or something and then they drop down dead in their thirties from a heart attack. I think exercising is likely to do you more harm than good".


Paul is a trainee paramedic who has just reluctantly signed up at his local gym. He passed his basic paramedic training but two weeks ago had to take a fitness test before he could proceed to the next stage. Unfortunately, he failed the test. He does not see himself as a sporty type and has never taken much exercise except when he had to in his schooldays. After the fitness test, the station commander called him in to his office and told him in no uncertain terms that if he fails to pass the test within three months he will be out. Paul is not too happy about it: "I really don't see why you have to be all that fit to be a paramedic. Alright, the job can be physically demanding at times, lugging patients up and down stairs and things, but I think I am well capable of handling it as I am. I mean, it's not as if I'm training for the Olympics, is it? Still, I have no choice really but to do as I am told".


Bill is a civil engineer in his fifties. He goes to the gym a couple of times a week and is trying, fairly successfully, to go jogging on a regular basis. He remarried a few years ago and has two young children. Bill has a family history of heart disease and this has been preying on his mind in recent years. Although he was quite physically active in his youth, he took little exercise for many years until the children came along. He gave up smoking at around the same time. Bill says: "My father, uncle and grandfather all died of heart disease in their early sixties. I'm approaching that age now myself and I can't afford to let it happen to me, what with a wife and two young kids to worry about. So I exercise as much as I reasonably can. I can't say I particularly enjoy it and I usually have to push myself to go. But if I feel like skipping a session, I just think about the kids and what would happen if I went and popped my clogs. That makes me feel really bad if don't go, like I'm guilty of letting them down".


Alan had rather a hard time socially as a child and adolescent. He was shy, small and skinny and was frequently bullied by other boys. Although he was quite keen on sports in school, he never got the chance to participate outside of compulsory PE lessons because nobody considered him to be good enough. He always looked up to his older brother who was in the Army and a keen competitive weight lifter and boxer. On leaving school a couple of years ago Alan was taken to a gym a few times by his brother and he soon became interested in body building. He now trains hard and regularly and his social life has been transformed from his schooldays. He has lots of friends, both male and female, and is, outwardly at least, a very confident and self-assured young man. Alan says: "I hated it as a youngster, being smaller than everyone and never taken seriously. Now I'm strong and, well, I think I look good and I'm proud of that. It's important to me to look fit and strong and have a good physique. People give me respect and sort of look up to me now like they never did before. When I was a kid it was like I wanted to be someone else all the time. You know, to be like one of the bigger boys who was good at sports and popular and all that. Now it's other people who look at me and say to themselves 'Hey, look at him, I wish I could look like that'. I would never have got to feel so good about myself it weren't for the body building".


Liz is a senior executive in a leading City finance house. She has worked her way to the top in this male-dominated world and is proud of her achievements. Despite her busy work schedule, she finds time to exercise for half an hour on most days, either in the company's corporate fitness centre or in hotel gyms when she is away on business. Liz feels it is absolutely vital for her to keep fit and sees this as an essential ingredient in the success of her career: "For me, keeping fit is so important. It's tough, you know, making time to get to the gym every day. But in my job, with the long hours, travelling and high pressure atmosphere I have to keep as sharp as I can and exercising regularly helps me to do that. I really don't think I would have got to where I am today without it".


Sandra used to be a teacher but retrained a few years ago as a fitness instructor. She runs classes every evening and at weekends and also trains in the gym most days. She is highly committed to exercise and sees it as the centrepoint of her lifestyle: "For years, working as a teacher, I used to exercise as much as I possibly could but never felt I was doing enough. So that's why I gave up teaching and got into this new career. I know what you're thinking, but it's definitely not that I am addicted to exercise or obsessive about it or anything like that. It's just that, well it's hard to explain but being an exerciser, being a fit person, is a big part of what I am, if you see what I mean. If I had to stop tomorrow it wouldn't exactly be the end of the world but it would mean that I'd have to do some serious thinking about my life and I'd find it difficult to readjust. It sounds silly but it'd be a bit like losing my name or something. I wouldn't know who I was any more".


John is a builder. He loves physical activity of all sorts. He usually plays squash or badminton once a week, runs often (he takes part in his town's annual 10k fun run every year) and plays for his local pub in the Sunday football league. "I've always been into sport and exercise" he says. "It's not as if I'm really all that good at it. I mean, I never had any illusions about playing for England or anything like that. It's just great to go out and kick a ball around or run in the park or whatever, have a laugh with your mates and just forget about work and everything for a bit. I love it." When asked if he thinks exercising is good for your health, he says: "Well, yeh, I suppose it must be. But that's not what it's all about for me, to be honest. I don't worry too much about the future and all that, you know. I just like having a good time. I mean, if I started thinking like 'Oh, this'll stop me getting a heart attack' or whatever, I think it would end up being just like work. I'd hate to get all obsessive about it like some people. It wouldn't be any fun then, would it?".

Self-determination and the regulation of behaviour: A taxonomy of regulatory styles

Clearly, these people all have very different feelings and beliefs about exercise. Apart from June, they are all engaging in exercise but the motivational forces driving their behaviour differ markedly. In other words, their exercise behaviour (or lack of it) is regulated in quite diverse ways. These differences are what Deci & Ryan's (1985, 1991) organismic integration theory (OIT), a subcomponent of self-determination theory, sets out to explain.

OIT describes the extent to which behavioural regulation has become internalised. Internalisation is the process by which people take on board the regulation of their behaviour so that it emanates from the self rather than from external forces. The theory proposes that the various forms of regulation lie along a continuum ranging from completely non-self-determined to completely self-determined regulation. Thus self-determination is not seen as an all-or-nothing phenomenon; it is more a question of how self-determined a person is. These varying levels of self-determination correspond to qualitatively different forms of behavioural regulation, each with their own particular functional consequences and experiential concomitants. The different forms of regulation are labelled: amotivation, external regulation, introjection, identification, integration and finally intrinsic regulation.



Commentary on the biographies

June can be said to be amotivated, a completely non-self determined form of regulation. This is a state of lacking any intention to engage in a behaviour. It results from not valuing the activity, not feeling competent to engage in it and/or not feeling that it will produce any desired outcomes. June's school history probably left her feeling incompetent with regards to exercise. She does not believe that she would benefit from exercising and in fact she thinks that it might actually be harmful to her health. Consequently, it is not surprising that she does not value physical activity and chooses not to exercise at all.

Paul has started to exercise but it is very obvious that, like June, he does not value it as a worthwhile activity. His exercise behaviour can be described as externally regulated and is also not self determined. He is exercising simply because he has been told by someone in authority that he has to, even though he does not think that it is necessary. When regulated in this way, people may well be motivated to comply with the external pressure to act but they do so unwillingly, even resentfully, and are unlikely to continue with the activity if those external pressures are relaxed.

Bill is not exercising because of externally imposed pressures but because he is putting the pressure on himself. Thus his behavioural regulation is somewhat internalised and can be said to be introjected. He acts because of his anxieties about heart disease and an anticipated sense of guilt that if he does become ill he will be letting his young family down. Thus, although he is internally driven, Bill's behaviour is only somewhat self determined.

Alan's story demonstrates how introjection can also manifest itself as a need to engage in an activity in order to demonstrate one's ability or worth and maintain one's sense of self esteem. For Alan, body building has changed his life and given him the popularity with his peers that he always wanted, but only because it has made him look good. So although he now has a strong sense of self worth, it is highly dependent on his body building activities. If he were unable to continue with this activity for some reason, it seems likely that his self esteem would soon begin to suffer.

Liz's exercise behaviour is less controlled and shows much greater self determination. Her behavioural regulation is identified. Identification involves a conscious acceptance of the behaviour as being important in order to achieve personally valued outcomes. The importance of the outcome provides a strong incentive that overrides any difficulties or obstacles to the behaviour. Thus Liz manages to find time to exercise regularly even though she finds it difficult fitting it into her busy work life.

Sandra is obviously a very committed exerciser. So much so that she changed careers in order to be able to exercise more. Her regulation can be described as integrated. Integration involves the internalisation of identified regulation so that engaging in the behaviour is fully congruent with one's sense of self and who one is. Integration is similar to intrinsic regulation in that the behaviour is engaged in willingly, with no sense of coercion and is therefore fully self determined. However, it differs from intrinsic regulation because the behaviour is still engaged in for separable outcomes rather than for the enjoyment inherent in the activity itself. Note the subtle difference between Sandra's feelings about why she exercises and Alan's. Although exercising is so important to her sense of who she is, Sandra's self esteem is not on the line in the way that it is for Alan.

John's motivation for exercise is purely intrinsic and fully self determined. Although he recognises the health benefits of exercise, he is not concerned about such extrinsic outcomes of exercising, he just loves doing it as a social and aesthetic experience. Notice also that his competence in physical activities is not a big issue for him. The immediate rewards of taking part are all that are important and if exercising were to become a chore or like work, as he puts it, there would no longer be any point in doing it.

The boundary between intrinsic and extrinsic

According to this taxonomy of regulatory styles, external, introjected, identified and integrated regulation are all differing forms of extrinsic motivation and can collectively be contrasted with amotivation and intrinsic motivation. Thus 'extrinsic' is not the same as 'external' in the sense of being outside of the individual. Introjection, identification and integration are just as internal to the person as intrinsic motivation. They are extrinsic regulatory styles in the sense that they are concerned with the outcomes or consequences of engaging in the behaviour, rather than with the immediate rewards inherent in taking part. Thus the boundary between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is not the skin! This is important to recognise because often any motivation that emanates from within the individual is labelled as intrinsic, and is therefore considered to be motivationally a good thing. From the self-determination theory perspective, this is not the case. The consequences of feeling controlled (i.e. non-self-determining) are the same whether it is someone else who is doing the controlling or ourselves. As Deci and Ryan (1985) put it:

"One can be as tyrannical toward oneself as others can be. The issue is not so much whether the source of control is oneself or another, but whether or not one is being controlled".



Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. New York, Plenum.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (1991). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personality. In R. Dienstbier (Ed.) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation Vol 38: Perspectives on Motivation, pp. 237-288. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


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