In 1977, two young psychologists at the University of Rochester met and had a conversation that would change their lives—and how the rest of us view human motivation. Richard Ryan PhD, then a clinical graduate student, and Edward Deci PhD, whose early research was already creating a stir in the field, realized that even though they had very different ways of thinking, they had a great deal in common.
"We hit if off right away," says Deci.
So began one of the great collaborations in contemporary psychology. Over the next several decades, Deci and Ryan developed the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation, which toppled the dominant belief that the best way to get human beings to perform tasks is to reinforce their behavior with rewards.
"SDT has been a major development in psychology," says Shigehiro Oishi, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a researcher in the causes and consequences of well-being. "When you talk about intrinsic motivation, you usually think of Deci and Ryan." Each of them has more than 200,000 citations to his credit, putting them in the top ranks for psychologists.
In his study published in 1971, Deci, an experimental psychologist with a math background, tasked two groups of psychology students with solving a Soma cube puzzle in three different sessions, ostensibly as part of a research project on problem-solving. In the second session, one group was paid for each successfully completed puzzle, while the other group was not. In a third session with the same people, neither group was paid. When Deci announced that the time was up, and left participants in each of the two rooms alone for a while, members of the group that had been paid for their work tended to drift away from the task to read magazines, while the group that had never been paid was more likely to continue working on the puzzles. Deci concluded that the people who'd been offered money no longer experienced that intrinsic motivation.
Deci's early experiments piqued colleagues' interest in motivation. Ryan, who had majored in philosophy in college and was on track to be a clinical psychologist, was interested in how people handled change. "Where we came together was in this common interest in autonomy in human motivation and wellness," Ryan says. It made sense to both of them that people would be willing to do things they wanted to do. But what exactly did that mean?
Their 1985 book, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior, was "our first full statement on SDT," Ryan says. "We're interested in what we would call high-quality motivation, when people can be wholeheartedly engaged in something and really can have both their best experience and their best performance. We've always been interested in factors that facilitate or undermine that motivation, and in investigating that, we came on the idea that there are some really basic psychological needs that everybody has, whether they're in the classroom, workplace, or sports field, that help them thrive and have their highest quality motivation. Those basic psychological needs are autonomy, competence and relatedness. That's the theory in a nutshell."
Today, SDT is a "meta-theory," Ryan says, and it serves as a frame for ongoing studies. The pair's latest book is Self Determination Theory. From the beginning, Deci says, "We thought it was important to differentiate types of motivation" rather than the amount. "The critical distinction for us is autonomous versus controlled motivation."
People certainly can be motivated externally — by money, or grades in school, or a desire for social approval, for example—but Deci and Ryan say that type of controlled motivation can actually taint a person's feelings about the basic worth of the project and undermine intrinsic motivation.
Oishi says that SDT "showed that Skinnerian behaviorism had a major limitation in that reward and punishment do not always change one's behavior. It showed there are other motivational factors than external incentives."
Some other researchers have "challenged some aspects of their theory," Oishi says. "But, overall, even a skeptic like myself cannot help but recognize [Deci and Ryan's] contributions to psychological science, education, organizational science and more."
Both Deci and Ryan hail from upstate New York. Deci started out in a behavioristic model himself, but he was also attracted to the humanistic approach. It bothered him that humanistic psychologists "weren't doing any research, it was just people talking about interesting ideas. Rich and I, throughout this whole time, have been trying to use the empirical approach to understand some of those ideas that were not contained within mainstream psychology at the time."
Now those ideas — their ideas — are pervasive. "Because of the centrality of motivation in human function," Ryan says SDT "covers a lot of the turf of psychology" —the developmental, social, personality and clinical aspects. Brain studies have even shown that "people who feel more autonomous make better decisions," Ryan says.
Support for children's autonomy makes for better parenting and classroom environments as well, "that is, understanding the perspective of children, and appreciating and respecting them," Ryan says. Structure is also necessary in those settings, he says.
Recently, the pair has moved from studying relationships with "authority differentials" to looking at close personal relationships — friends, siblings, mates. Those relationships thrive, they've found, when the partners support and encourage each other. Without that support, the closeness is not maintained over time. Deci says, "The important thing is that they both do it for each other."
Even in the relationship between a psychologist and a patient, Deci adds that "the effect size when therapists are autonomy-supportive is double what it is normally."
While Deci still works primarily out of the University of Rochester, Ryan has recently moved his home base to Australian Catholic University in Sydney, where he's engaged in research with the Institute of Positive Psychology. As to their long association, Ryan says, "We think collaboration makes for better work. You are check and balance for one another."
Now that SDT is practiced worldwide, they extend that role to other researchers, who "play the same roles we originally played for each other," Ryan says. "It's been amazing to us, the extent to which SDT has penetrated society."
Deci says simply, "Richard is my best friend." Ryan adds that while their close friendship has been "essential to the collaboration," the fact that he and Deci "do have a different style of thinking is a kind of a gift."