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Can mental health problems predict dispositional self-determination? needs satisfaction as mediator.

Abundant research findings have shown that self-determination is related to a range of health-related outcomes that include both negative outcomes such as work stress and illness symptoms (Nie, Chua, Yeung, Ryan, & Chan, 2015), and positive benefits such as engagement (Podlog et al., 2015) and well-being (e.g., Erturan-Ilker, 2014). As the research focus in this field has generally been on people in Western countries rather than on those in collectivist-oriented cultures (Jang, Reeve, Ryan, & Kim, 2009; Nie et al., 2015), we decided to investigate self-determination among Chinese first-year college students. Furthermore, by adopting self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2000), we aimed to determine whether or not mental health problems could predict self-determination through needs satisfaction.

Motivational and Dispositional Self-Determination

Two conceptual systems of self-determination have been previously examined in SDT research. Some researchers view self-determination as a high-quality subtype of motivation, namely, motivational self-determination, including autonomous or self-determined motivation (e.g., Sanchez-Oliva, Sanchez-Miguel, Leo, Kinnafick, & Garcia-Calvo, 2014). Other researchers have conceptualized self-determination as a general personality characteristic similar to personal autonomy (Sheldon, 1995). As a personality characteristic, dispositional self-determination refers to a general trait related to the extent to which people consider themselves to be the author of their own behavior (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Sheldon, 1995). Dispositional self-determination comprises self-awareness and perceived choice (Kocayoruk, Altintas, & icbay, 2015; Sheldon, 1995). Self-awareness refers to individuals' clear understanding of their feelings and sense of self, and perceived choice refers to individuals' perception of the degree to which their action is a result of their own decision (Kocayoruk et al., 2015; Sheldon, 1995).

Deci and Ryan (2000) regard motivational and dispositional self-determination as the same concept and treat them synonymously. However, motivational self-determination is more flexible than dispositional self-determination, and is dependent on situational context (Erturan-Ilker, 2014), whereas dispositional self-determination is relatively more stable and independent of a given situation (Sheldon, 1995). Many researchers have focused on motivational self-determination (e.g., Erturan-Ilker, 2014; Sanchez-Oliva et al., 2014), but little attention has been paid to dispositional self-determination (e.g., Kocayoruk et al., 2014).

The Relationship Between Self-Determination and Mental Health

As researchers have found that self-determination is related to mental health (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Nie et al., 2015), in this study, we examined mental health as the cause of self-determination, that is the rarely discussed possibility that mental health may influence self-determination. Previous researchers have investigated this topic with clinical participants who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia (Vancampfort et al., 2012, 2015). Vancampfort and colleagues (2012) found that the negative psychiatric symptoms led to participants' lack of interest in physical activity and exercise programs. Vancampfort and colleagues (2015) further demonstrated that the negative psychiatric symptoms were significantly associated with lower autonomous motivation. In addition, some types of mental health problems among nonclinical populations have been associated with self-determination. For example, social physique anxiety among 580 British school children was found to negatively predict self-determined motivation for exercise via extrinsic goals (Gillison, Standage, & Skevington, 2006). Higher levels of subjective stress, which has been associated with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, negatively predicted the perceived self-determination of secondary school students (Raufelder et al., 2014). Test anxiety was also found to lead to a decrease in motivational self-determination in the form of intrinsic motivation and identified regulation (Raufelder, Hoferichter, Schneeweiss, & Wood, 2015). To our knowledge, no researchers have investigated the negative effects of mental health problems on dispositional self-determination among college students.

The Mediating Role of Needs Satisfaction

It is proposed in SDT that satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness is essential for positive development (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Autonomy is the need to feel a sense of inherent willingness and the experience of having personal control over one's life. Competence refers to the feeling of completing different challenges in an effective and skillful way. Lastly, relatedness refers to interacting with, and being accepted by others (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Findings reported in a growing body of research conducted with children, adolescents, and adults, have revealed the central roles of these three basic needs in self-determination (Podlog et al., 2015; Rutten, Boen, & Seghers, 2012; Sanchez-Oliva et al., 2014).

However, less is known about the influence of mental health on needs satisfaction. In a recent longitudinal study, participants were examined three times: (a) in 2003, aged 18-24 years (Time 1); (b) in 2005, aged 20-26 years (Time 2); and (c) in 2008, aged 23-29 years (Time 3). The results showed that good mental health at Times 1 and 2 predicted a lower level of incongruence (equivalent to better needs satisfaction) at Times 2 and 3, demonstrating that good mental health appeared to be a precondition for needs satisfaction (Bachmann, Znoj, & Haemmerli, 2014). Ibarra-Rovillard and Kuiper (2011) showed that individuals diagnosed as being depressed might find it more difficult to satisfy basic psychological needs. Brunet and Sabiston (2009) are the only researchers to report a negative influence of social physique anxiety on motivational self-determination through a decrease in needs satisfaction. However, to our knowledge, researchers have not examined the link between mental health problems and dispositional self-determination through needs satisfaction.

Thus, we primarily aimed to investigate the characteristics of dispositional self-determination among Chinese first-year college students and to conduct tests to determine whether or not their mental health problems negatively predicted dispositional self-determination through the mediating role of needs satisfaction. Therefore, we proposed the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: Dispositional self-determination among Chinese first-year college students will not differ by demographic group.

Hypothesis 2: Chinese first-year college students' mental health problems at Time 1 will have a negative association with their self-determination at Time 2.

Hypothesis 3: The relationship between dispositional self-determination and mental health problems of Chinese first-year college students will be mediated by their needs satisfaction at Time 2.


Participants and Procedure

We recruited first-year college students at a university in southeast Mainland China by random cluster sampling. These participants were chosen because previous findings have shown that freshmen may easily experience feelings of fear, helplessness, and loss of control (Geslani & Gaebelein, 2013), and may be particularly prone to mental health problems (Yao, Han, Zeng, & Guo, 2013). Before the participants completed the survey, we explained to them the purpose of the study and obtained their informed consent. We also assured them that their participation was voluntary, anonymous, and confidential. Approval for this study was obtained from the Ethics Committee of the university. Participants completed the survey during class time taking approximately 20 minutes at Time 1 and 15 minutes at Time 2.

Data were collected at two time points approximately 3 months apart. Mental health problems were first assessed for 593 freshmen in September 2013 (Time 1). At Time 2, in January 2014, 508 of these freshmen returned survey forms on which they had assessed their perceptions of their basic needs, satisfaction, and dispositional self-determination (85.67% response rate). After we had discarded the responses of 12 students because of missing data, the final sample consisted of 496 participants. Their age ranged from 17 to 22 years (M = 18.23, SI) = 0.711), and 176 (35.5%) were men and 320 (64.5%) were women. There were 140 (28.2%) participants from urban areas and 356 (71.8%) from rural areas. Of these, 204 (41.1%) were from ordinary middle schools (which have a modest college enrolment rate), and 292 (58.9%) were from key middle schools (which have a high college enrolment rate). In terms of their family situation, 218 (44%) were from one-child families, and 278 (56%) had a sibling or siblings. In addition, 202 participants (40.7%) held part-time jobs, and 294 (59.3%) were not employed in paid work.

Measure at Time 1

Mental health problems. At Time 1, we assessed the participants' mental health status with the University Personality Inventory (UPI), which was developed by the University of Tsukuba and revised by Fan (1994). The UPI consists of 60 items made up of four positive health items (healthy scale [HS]: nos. 5, 20, 35, 50), with the remaining 56 items comprising the unhealthy scale (UHS), and which are negative health items in four subscales: physical complaints ([alpha] = .73), depression ([alpha] = .81), anxiety ([alpha] = .81), and obsession ([alpha] = .83). Participants respond affirmatively if they feel the item conveys their true feelings over the past year (e.g., "I worry too much"); otherwise, they respond negatively. An affirmative response is scored as 1 point and a negative response is scored as 0. Higher UHS scores indicate greater psychological distress or problems and poorer mental health. In this study, Cronbach's a for the overall UPI was .89.

Measures at Time 2

Dispositional self-determination. The students completed the Chinese version (Qiao, 2009) of the Self-Determination Scale (SDS; Sheldon, 1995). This scale comprises two subscales each with five items. Each item consists of two statements labeled as statement A and statement B. For instance, "My emotions sometimes seem alien to me" and "My emotions always seem to belong to me" form a two-part item that is designed to measure self-awareness ([alpha] = .70), and "I choose to do what I have to do" and "I do what I have to, but I don't feel like it is really my choice" form a two-part item that measures perceived choice ([alpha] = .75). Each item is rated on a 5-point Likert scale. Participants were asked to determine if statement A or B better reflected their true feelings. Those who felt that statement A was completely true and statement B completely false responded with 1. In contrast, those who felt that statement B was completely true and statement A completely false responded with 5. If they felt that A and B were equally true, they responded with 3. Cronbach's a for the total score of the SDS was .77.

Needs satisfaction. We used the Activity-Feelings States scales (AFS; Reeve & Sickenius, 1994) to measure participants' perception of their satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs. These scales were first translated from English into Chinese by a Chinese-speaking instructor of English and then independently translated back by another bilingual professional. The original author and the two translators discussed deviations in meaning that were found, to reach a consensus on the final wording. The introduction to the items in the scale begins with: "During classes, I feel ..." followed by nine items in three subscales, each with three items. The three subscales are the need for autonomy (e.g., "I'm doing what I want to be doing," [alpha] = .66), the need for competence (e.g., "capable," [alpha] = .67), and the need for relatedness (e.g., "I belong and people here care about me," [alpha] = .77). Each item is rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), with 3 (agree and disagree equally) as the midpoint. Desirable levels of reliability and validity were confirmed with a sample from another collectivist-oriented society (South Korea; Jang et al., 2009). Cronbach's a for the total score of the AFS scales was .83.

Data Analysis

SPSS 19.0 was used to collect descriptive statistics for all study variables. AMOS 17.0 was used to test the structural hypotheses. Following a two-step procedure, we first ran confirmatory factor analyses (CFA) to verify the use of the measurement model (M2). M2 is a three-factor model comprising three latent variables (mental health problems, needs satisfaction, and self-determination) and their indicators for the corresponding subscales. To examine the potential for common method bias, we tested a one-factor model (M1), in which the nine indicators were combined into a single factor.

In the second step we examined the models using structural equation modeling (SEM) with a bootstrapping procedure with 5,000 resamples. Model 3 (M3) was a partial mediation model in which mental health problems were both directly and indirectly related to self-determination via needs satisfaction. A competing model (M4) was a full mediation model similar to M3 but with no direct path from mental health problems to self-determination. Another competing model (M5) was a direct model, in which both mental health problems and needs satisfaction were directly related to self-determination.


Preliminary Analyses

An initial multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted. The dependent variables were self-determination and its two subscales, and the independent variables were profile variables for gender (male or female), birthplace (urban or rural area), middle school (ordinary or key), and family (one-child or with sibling or siblings). As no significant main or interaction effects were found, Hypothesis 1 was supported. A second MANOVA was conducted to examine the effects of other variables related to participants' lives after entering the university, namely, having or not having a part-time job, and university expectations (whether or not they considered the university experience had met or had not met their expectations). We found no significant effect of part-time job status, supporting Hypothesis 1. However, a significant main effect for university expectations was found, Wilks' [lambda] = .986, F(2, 491) = 3.603, [[eta].sup.2] = .014, p = .028. This indicated that freshmen whose university experience had met their expectations reported significantly higher scores for self-determination and its two subscales than did those whose experience had not met their expectations. In subsequent analyses, we controlled for university expectations by using it as a covariate of self-determination in the SEM.

Descriptive statistics and Pearson correlations among all study variables are presented in Table 1. The results showed that mental health problems at Time 1 were negatively associated with later self-determination and needs satisfaction. Moreover, needs satisfaction was positively correlated with self-determination. Thus, Hypothesis 2 was supported, and the results provided initial support for the mediation effect.

Primary Analyses

The CFA results indicated that Ml had a poor fit to the data, and M2 showed an adequate fit to the data (see Table 2), indicating that M2 supported the proposed factorial configuration.

The SEM results showed that M3 was a statistically better fit to the data than either M4, [DELTA][chi square] (1) = 38.404, p < .001, or M5, [DELTA][chi square] (1) = 19.553, p < .001. Paths of mental health problems at Time 1 negatively predicting self-determination and needs satisfaction at Time 2 are depicted in Figure 1. Mental health problems negatively predicted 54.3% of the variance in self-determination. The standardized indirect path from mental health problems to self-determination was significant (-.179, p = .004). The 95% bootstrapping confidence interval (CI) [-.273, -.118] and the Sobel test result (z = -3.827, p < .001) further confirmed the significant mediating effect. Thus, the results showed that needs satisfaction partially mediated the relationship between mental health problems and dispositional self-determination. Therefore, Hypothesis 3 was partially supported.


According to our results, dispositional self-determination tends to be relatively similar for all first-year college students because we found no significant differences according to demographic group. Wang (2013), using the same measurement tool that we used in this study, also found no group differences by either gender or major subject in self-determination among Chinese university students. Likewise, Batia (2007), who used a different measuring instrument, found no difference in self-determination according to gender. However, the stable nature of dispositional self-determination was not as consistent in previous findings. For example, Wang found that freshmen and juniors reported significantly higher levels of perceived choice than did sophomores, but Qiao (2009) reported finding no significant differences among students according to their year of study. It is worth noting that we found that first-year college students reported different levels of self-determination according to their expectations for their university experience. A possible explanation is that the students evaluated whether or not their university experience was as they had expected, according to the degree to which their psychological needs were satisfied. If their needs were satisfied, they would regard their university experience as being as they had expected and, thus, these students would have perceived a greater sense of self-determination. On the contrary, if their needs were not met, they would have reported perceiving a lower degree of self-determination. More detailed work by researchers is required for the confirmation of the relatively stable nature of dispositional self-determination that we observed among a group of college students.

We also found that mental health problems were negatively associated with later self-determination. This is consistent with the finding reported in a study by Raufelder et al. (2015) in which the focus was on the relationship between test anxiety and motivational self-determination. Our SEM results further revealed that more severe mental health problems were a predictor of lower levels of self-determination. This accords with a previous finding that cognitive distortions had a significantly negative impact on Chinese students' sense of autonomy (Zhang, 2008).

Our finding that needs satisfaction partially mediated the relationship between mental health problems and dispositional self-determination is consistent with that of Brunet and Sabiston (2009). On the one hand, mental health problems negatively predicted needs satisfaction. That is, as an individual's mental health problems increased in severity, needs satisfaction was more likely to decrease, which is consistent with the finding reported by Ibarra-Rovillard and Kuiper (2011). Luyckx and colleagues (2014) also found that when an individual had depressive symptoms, this increased the probability of him or her being rejected by others, thus decreasing the satisfaction of that individual's need for relatedness. On the other hand, the mediation result clearly confirmed the influence of needs satisfaction on self-determination, which is consistent with the finding reported by Podlog et al. (2015) and aligns with the central tenet of SDT that satisfaction of the three psychological needs is essential for positive development (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Furthermore, our mediation result is similar to a previous finding indicating the mediating role of needs satisfaction between teacher support and students' self-determination motivation (Sanchez-Oliva et al., 2014).

Practical Implications

In summary, our findings in this study offer insight into how present or past mental health problems can negatively predict self-determination both directly and indirectly via needs satisfaction. From a practical perspective, our results call attention to the damaging influence of mental health problems, and highlight the importance of psychological needs satisfaction in fostering dispositional self-determination. Apart from the provision of resources such as learning materials and facilities in the university environment (Rutten et al., 2012), strategies that satisfy the three psychological needs may be critical both for increasing freshmen's self-determination and for reducing the negative influence of mental health problems. Namely, when university staff provide multiple choices and rationale for learning activities (Iachini, Amorose, & Anderson-Butcher, 2010; Podlog et al., 2015), employ strategies such as goal-setting, self-referenced improvement, informational feedback, and optimal task challenge (Podlog et al., 2015), show their concern for freshmen through individual, personal communication, and help them cultivate strong connections with peers, parents, and teachers (Iachini et al., 2010; Podlog et al., 2015), first-year college students may have their basic needs fulfilled, experience less negative influence from mental health problems, and, lastly, develop greater self-determination.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

There are several limitations in this study. The first is the homogeneity of the participants, all of whom were students at a single university. Although the sample size was large enough to ensure adequate statistical power, our results still need to be interpreted with caution if the findings are to be generalized to other populations. Future researchers should use more diverse samples to confirm our results. A second limitation is the use of the self-report method, because participants can overreport or underreport their behavior (Batia, 2007). To overcome this limitation, future researchers could use multi-informant assessments. The third limitation is that the study design was a cross-sectional investigation that cannot lead to a causal conclusion. Although the data were derived from responses collected at two time points, we did not assess prior levels of self-determination and needs satisfaction. To draw a stronger causal conclusion, future researchers should use longitudinal or experimental designs, with each variable being tested at more time points over a longer period.


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East China Normal University and Zhejiang International Studies University


East China Normal University


Zhejiang International Studies University

Lihua Zhou, School of Psychology and Cognitive Science, East China Normal University and School of Education Science, Zhejiang International Studies University; Xiao-Wen Li, School of Psychology and Cognitive Science, East China Normal University; Jiong Yang and Ning Ren, School of Education Science, Zhejiang International Studies University.

This research was supported by the Department of Education of Zhejiang Province (Y201430464) and by the project of Zhejiang International Studies University (090500042013). The authors especially thank the students who participated in the study.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lihua Zhou, School of Education Science, Zhejiang International Studies University, 140 Wensan Road, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, 310012, People's Republic of China. Email:

Caption: Figure 1. Final model of relationships among mental health problems, needs satisfaction, and self-determination. Note, p < .01. All standardized path coefficients shown are highly significant.
Table 1. Means, Standard Deviations, and Correlations Among Study

                               1         2         3         4

Measures at Time 1
  1. Obsession              1
  2. Depression              .88 **   1
  3. Anxiety                 .88 **    .80 **   1
  4. Physical complaint      .63 **    .59 **    .68 **   1
  5. TMHP                    .94 **    .90 **    .93 **    .77 **
  6. Healthy scale scores   -.39 **   -.43 **   -.35 **   -.28 **

Measures at Time 2
  7. Autonomy               -.15 **   -.19 **   -.14 **   -.11 *
  8. Competence             -.13 **   -.18 **   -.12 **   -.01
  9. Relatedness            -.20 **   -.21 **   -.12 **   -.06
  10. TNS                   -.20 **   -.23 **   -.15 **   -.08
  11. Self-awareness        -.29 **   -.29 **   -.25 **   -.19 **
  12. Perceived choice      -.30 **   -.34 **   -.28 **   -.20 **
  13. TSD                   -.37 **   -.40 **   -.33 **   -.25 **

M                           3.28      1.98      4.56      2.11
SD                          3.32      2.40      3.47      2.33

                               5         6         7         8

Measures at Time 1
  1. Obsession
  2. Depression
  3. Anxiety
  4. Physical complaint
  5. TMHP                   1
  6. Healthy scale scores   -.40 **   1

Measures at Time 2
  7. Autonomy               -.16 **    .21 **   1
  8. Competence             -.14 **    .22 **    .51 **   1
  9. Relatedness            -.16 **    .33 **    .50 **    .55 **
  10. TNS                   -.19 **    .31 **    .82 **    .82 **
  11. Self-awareness        -.30 **    .27 **    .23 **    .26 **
  12. Perceived choice      -.31 **    .23 **    .47 **    .34 **
  13. TSD                   -.38 **    .31 **    .43 **    .38 **

M                           10.50     3.10      3.28      3.43
SD                          9.19      1.02      0.70      0.64

                               9        10        11

Measures at Time 1
  1. Obsession
  2. Depression
  3. Anxiety
  4. Physical complaint
  5. TMHP
  6. Healthy scale scores

Measures at Time 2
  7. Autonomy
  8. Competence
  9. Relatedness            1
  10. TNS                    .84 **   1
  11. Self-awareness         .29 **    .32 **   1
  12. Perceived choice       .41 **    .49 **    .29 **
  13. TSD                    .44 **    .51 **    .80 **

M                           3.61      3.44      3.66
SD                          0.72      0.57      0.95

                              12       13

Measures at Time 1
  1. Obsession
  2. Depression
  3. Anxiety
  4. Physical complaint
  5. TMHP
  6. Healthy scale scores

Measures at Time 2
  7. Autonomy
  8. Competence
  9. Relatedness
  10. TNS
  11. Self-awareness
  12. Perceived choice      1
  13. TSD                    .81 **   1

M                           3.43      3.54
SD                          0.96      0.76

Note. N = 496. ** p < .01, two-tailed. TMHP = total score for mental
health problems; TNS = total score for needs satisfaction; TSD =
total score for dispositional self-determination.

Table 2. Fit Indices for Confirmatory Factor Analyses and
Structural Equation Models

Model description          [chi     df    [chi     RMSEA and 90% CI
                          square]        square]
CFA models
  Ml: one factor          606.258   27   22.454    .208 [.194-.223]
  M2: three factors        97.062   24   4.044     .078 [.063-.095]
SEM models
  M3: partial mediation   108.335   32   3.385     .069 [.055-.084]
  M4: full mediation      146.739   33   4.447     .083 [.070-.097]
  M5: direct model        127.888   33   3.875     .076 [.063-.090]

Model description         RFI   NFI   TLI   CFI   GFI   SRMR

CFA models
  Ml: one factor          .68   .76   .69   .94   .94   .17
  M2: three factors       .94   .96   .96   .97   .96   .03
SEM models
  M3: partial mediation   .94   .96   .96   .97   .96   .04
  M4: full mediation      .92   .94   .94   .95   .95   .07
  M5: direct model        .93   .95   .95   .96   .95   .08

Note. M1 = one-factor model; M2 = three-factor and measurement
model; M3 = partial meditation model; M4 = full meditation model; M5
= direct model without mediators. RMSEA = root mean square error of
approximation; RFI = relative fit index; NFI = normed fit index; TLI
= Tucker-Lewis index; CFI = comparative fit index; GFI = goodness-of-fit
index; SRMR = standardized root mean square residual; CFA =
confirmatory factor analyses; SEM = structural equation modeling; CI
= confidence interval.
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Article Details
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Author:Zhou, Lihua; Li, Xiao-Wen; Yang, Jiong; Ren, Ning
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:May 1, 2017
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