Edward Deci and Richard Ryan are professors in the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology at the University of Rochester. Their extremely productive 30-year collaboration has led to the development and continuing evolution of self-determination theory (SDT). Deci received his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in 1970, and Ryan received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1981. Their work has been focused on the effects of social contexts on motivation, particularly factors that enhance or undermine self-determination and intrinsic motivation. Together and with other collaborators, Deci and Ryan have isolated basic social cognitive processes underlying motivation. Applications of SDT have been tested in many areas dealing with parenting, sport and exercise, work, leisure, health care, mental health, education, and psychotherapy. A testament to the importance of Deci and Ryan’s contributions is the substantial amount of debate and controversy that has been generated about empirical support for the theory and the implications of its various applications.
STD is based on the assumptions that human beings actively respond to their world, are naturally inclined toward growth and development, and have a set of basic psychological needs that are culturally universal. These innate needs include autonomy, competence, and social relatedness, and their satisfaction is thought to be critical for human development and well-being. Social contexts that support the satisfaction of these needs facilitate intrinsic motivation and consequently natural growth processes. Contexts that interfere with them are associated with poorer motivation, performance, and well-being. These contexts are characterized by external regulation that often takes the form of rewards, and since people feel controlled by rewards, these contexts can have the unintended consequence of decreasing intrinsic motivation and preventing the development of self-regulatory processes. However, Deci and Ryan have argued that even externally motivated actions can be brought under the control of self-regulatory processes if an individual engages in an active process of internalization and integration.
Since the basic psychological need for autonomy is central to effective self-regulation and well-being, autonomy is seen as being of critical importance for promoting long-term behavior change and well-being. Fostering intrinsic motivation for engaging in healthy behavior and learning in educational settings are two areas that have received a considerable amount of attention by Deci and Ryan as well as other researchers and stakeholders. SDT has been used to develop strategies to foster mental health, personal growth, and healthy behavior change in psychotherapy and population health contexts. Examples include adherence to treatment regimes for managing physical health problems, overcoming behavioral problems including abuse and eating disorders, and tackling mood disorders such as depression and phobias.
With respect to educational issues, Deci and Ryan have argued that autonomy-supportive classroom teaching approaches foster motivational styles that facilitate students’ progression from an unmotivated to a more intrinsically-motivated approach to learning. They also have addressed performance testing in schools. Although performance testing is advocated as a means of motivating students and improving school performance, Deci and Ryan have cautioned that when it is used indiscriminately it can undermine students’ feelings of autonomy and a sense of personal control. Ultimately, this can lessen students’ intrinsic motivation to learn, diminish their sense of well-being, and jeopardize the quality of student learning.
- Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 105-124). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.