Richard Ryan on the Many Applications of Self-Determination Theory

Paper Interview: August 2010

Richard RyanAccording to Essential Science IndicatorsSM from Thomson Reuters, the paper "Self-Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being," (Ryan RM, Deci EL, Amer. Psychol. 55[1]: 68-78, January 2000), ranks at #6 among Psychiatry & Psychology papers published in the past decade, with 1,138 citations up to April 30, 2010.

Its authors, Dr. Richard Ryan and Dr. Ed Deci, both rank among the top 1% of researchers in this field, and Deci also ranks among the top 1% of researchers in Social Sciences. Both hail from the University of Rochester, where Ryan is Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, & Education, and Deci is Professor of Psychology and the Gowan Professor in the Social Sciences. They are joint directors of the Self-Determination Theory Program based at Rochester. Ryan is also the Editor-in-Chief of Motivation & Emotion. correspondent Gary Taubes talks with Ryan about the far-flung influence of Self-Determination Theory.

SW: You've been working on Self-Determination Theory for a long time. How did it all begin?

I'm a clinical psychologist. The very first motivation project I was involved in, back in the late 1970s, was in schools, and we saw what a big impact classroom teachers were having, not only on learning but on the well-being and self-esteem of the students as a function of their motivation-related practices. This impact occurred within the first three to five weeks of the school year, in fourth, fifth and sixth graders in public school.

As a clinical psychologist, I appreciated how big an effect that was and thought it was important to follow-up and do more research on it. At the time, I was already collaborating with Ed Deci, who is my co-author on this highly cited 2000 paper. So we started to talk about an approach to studying this and a theory to explain it. This, of course, led to the early formulations of Self-Determination Theory, which have since been elaborated by formal theory and experimentation.

SW: How did you measure impact in these children, and how long did the effect actually last?

In the summer, we asked the teachers to assess their own motivational styles. Then we looked at the way they handled motivational problems and we used that to predict the motivation of the kids in the classroom. The effect lasted throughout the year.

Edward Deci
Coauthor Edward Deci

Very controlling teachers would have the self-esteem or sense of confidence of the kids dropping. And autonomy-supporting teachers would see an increase. It was a very impressive effect and excited me to move in that direction.

SW: What prompted the 2000 American Psychologist paper itself and why do you think it's been so highly cited?

This paper appeared in a special issue of American Psychologist about the positive psychology movement. We were invited to contribute to that special issue by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was editing that issue.

So we wrote an article that summarized the state of the theory at that point in time as it applied to the promotion of human wellness and mental health. We did it in a pretty brief way, which may be among the reasons why that article is so widely cited. It was one place people could go to get Self-Determination Theory in a nutshell.

SW: So what is Self-Determination Theory in a nutshell, and was it your theory originally or did you expand on the work of others?

It was initially developed by Ed Deci and myself as a theory of personality development and motivation. Self-Determination Theory looks at how social contexts—work, home, school environments—affect the motivation and wellness of people residing in them. It's a pretty broad theory about social factors that facilitate or undermine people's best functioning, which at the same time yields very specific interventions and change models.

SW: Is the evidence observational or is it based on experimental studies as well?

We've done a lot of experimental work, a lot of observation, and some interventions. For example, we manipulate in the laboratory how awards are administered, how praise is delivered, and how instructions are given, and we look at the impact on motivation and well-being.

We do similar things in the field. We might intervene in a school, do an intervention in a classroom and compare it to other classrooms where the intervention hasn't been done. There have also been many randomized controlled trials testing Self-Determination Theory formulations in areas like health care, psychotherapy, and education.

SW: What have you learned from these trials and interventions, which is another way of asking, what's Self-Determination Theory in a nutshell, circa 2010?

We basically postulate that all human beings, regardless of culture and developmental level, have some basic psychological needs, and these needs—for autonomy, for competence, for relatedness—can be easily frustrated as well as easily supported by social environments. If one is in an environment where one or more of these needs are thwarted or blocked from satisfaction, people show decrements in well-being and decrements in motivation.

SW: Can you give us an example, an anecdote to show us what you mean?

We just had a study come out of moods across the week in adult workers. We see this big burst of well-being on weekends—people have more physical and psychological health on weekends than on weekdays. The data suggest that this is because on weekdays, when they're working, they have very little relatedness and autonomy and that brings their sense of well-being down.

We can also compare workplaces. When managers are very supportive of autonomy, workers are more productive and happier than they are when the managers use a controlling approach. There's a lot of work on parenting, too, showing similar phenomena. Wendy Grolnick has done a lot of that research.

SW: How popular has Self-Determination Theory become over the years? Has it been widely accepted?

Actually, we've just had the Fourth International Conference on Self-Determination Theory last May. There were approximately 135 papers delivered and 300 posters. There's a lot of excellent new research in this field. It's very active.

The theory has grown tremendously in visibility over the last 10 years. In fact, we've been very surprised at how much attention it's gotten, and we think that's because it's a theory that translates into many different applications.

SW: Do you think your 2000 American Psychology paper was a tipping point?

I think that paper came out a good time to be a part of the growth. There are other papers from around that time that are also widely cited. I do think the fact that American Psychology has such a wide readership certainly helped that paper get cited.

Self-Determination TheoryBut the theory has been around since the 1980s; it's been getting disseminated, getting used more and more widely. All ideas have their own trajectory. This one must have hit some critical points in terms of attention and applicability.

What has certainly also helped a lot is evidence from clinical trials, particularly in health care, and some really good interventions that have been done in education and in sport and exercise domains. These have attracted attention from practitioners as well as basic science audiences.

SW: Again, can you give us some examples of these interventions?

For instance, Geoff Williams, who is on the faculty of Medicine here in Rochester, has done a self-determination-based smoking-cessation program. In it, techniques of autonomy support and need satisfaction are used to create a real motivational atmosphere for people who would like to quit smoking.

Instead of pressuring them to the outcome of quitting, the approach supports autonomy for whatever direction they might want to go. It's a very successful approach. Paradoxically, by applying less pressure, but letting people explore what they really want to do, people use that opportunity to move in a direction of health.

Parenting is another area where Self-Determination Theory has been applied. We have techniques for how to set goals for kids, how to set limits on difficult behavior, how to understand and deal with problems when they come up. Wendy Grolnick has written two excellent books on this topic.

Her recent one is called Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child (Prometheus Press, 2008).Her earlier book was called The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-meant Parenting Backfires (Erlbaum, 2003). And,as I said, we also do work in religion, education, sports, healthcare psychotherapy...really, all domains where people are motivated.

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