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Research and Interventions using Self-Determination Theory

Research and Interventions using Self-Determination Theory

The following posting is based on the notes take during a lecture at Loughborough University in 2011 by Dr Richard Ryan, I thought folk might find this useful.

Dr Richard Ryan of Rochester University, New York, has had a distinguished career as a clinical and academic psychologist and is perhaps most famous for the creation of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) in collaboration with Dr Ed Deci. He is currently on a six month visiting professorship at the University of Bath and was invited to lecture at Loughborough by the Department of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend and it was a really enjoyable experience! The lecture was scheduled to be an hour and half, but lasted for two. Happily there were no students waiting to come into the theatre for the next slot so we were able to get the most from the extra time! Dr Ryan apologised for taking too long but the audience was delighted.

I had some understanding of SDT already as it is a fundamental part of the Motivational Hypnotism Model of Therapy which I created with Fiona Biddle and I use it a lot in my clinical work, but I learned a lot. I will summarise his theories and research as explained today. However this is not intended to be a complete thesis on the theory. If it is of interest, please investigate further.

Basic psychological needs
The three basic psychological needs are for autonomy, competence and relatedness. Ryan argues that these are universal and not related to culture. He explained that anyone who is lacking in any one of these will be affected: no exceptions. For example, someone who has had a string of bad relationships may say they do not need anyone, but their mental health will still be affected. Someone may say that they do not need autonomy, but they do or the lack will have a detrimental effect on their mental health. I usually struggle with any theory that says “always” and states things as “facts”, but he was very convincing!

One of the keys behind this view is the explanation of autonomy, which is the most controversial of the three. He explained that it is not the same as independence. For example, I would be acting independently if I was ill and self-medicated, but if I went to my GP and asked for advice, that could be an autonomous act. I say could be because it might not be if someone (or an un-thought-through belief system) was leading to this behaviour. Also, autonomy can fit with whatever value system you have. The important thing is that you autonomously choose your value system. For example, in some cultures, women must obey the commands of their husbands. They can still be autonomous if they are choosing this value system volitionally, not heteronomously.

Autonomous behaviour does not need to be self-initiated: it doesn’t matter if someone else suggests the activity; I am still being autonomous if I do it because it is right for me to do and so I make the choice. Later I will comment on the things we need to do that we do not really want to!
Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation (IM) is that which comes from within the activity itself, eg enjoyment, fun, challenge. If an activity is intrinsically motivating then it will help to meet some or all of the basic psychological needs. For example, I am intrinsically motivated to write this report… I am enjoying it… and it helps me feel autonomous (no one asked me to do it, it was completely my choice, and I can do it how I like), it helps me feel competent (hey! I understood it!) and it helps me feel related as I think of the people who will read it.

Another example could be my son who plays rugby. He enjoys it, it’s fun, it’s challenging, it adds to his feelings of competence and he feels related to his team-mates. Interestingly, it is clear how much the coach influences the motivational process. His team has two coaches and when the one who allows the players a lot of autonomy is in charge, Greg comes home buzzing after training, but when the controlling one is in charge, he comes home moaning!
Ryan talked about some of the things that can undermine IM, one of these being surveillance. This is the primary reason why our tutors will often allow students to practice without being watched over (obviously… they are usually observing from a distance!).

Praise is an interesting phenomenon. It tends to enhance IM for students but can undermine it for children as it is often used as a controlling mechanism and children, at some level, recognise this. This raised a question for me about praising clients. I have always felt that this is a tricky area and have naturally tended to keep most praise for when they are in hypnosis, thinking that I was doing so to make it easier for them to take it (ie not to deflect), and easier for me to deliver, but now I am not sure… something to ponder on!

One area of research that has produced very clear results is the power of rewards to undermine IM. Rewards differ from praise in that there is, according to Ryan, a feeling of “I am doing this for you, if you reward me”, and so it shifts an internal perception of locus of control (which isn’t a good thing!). He reported a recent study which used brain imaging techniques to show that, initially, when offered a reward for undertaking a moderately challenging activity, IM was higher than when no offer was made. However, on subsequent trials, it sank down, in some instances to a negative value.

Ryan (with Deci) did a meta-analysis on the effect of rewards and found variable results for differing methods of rewards and different groups but there was never a completely positive outcome. There are some who disagree with him (of course) but he has published data showing the errors in their research.
He went on to explain that all this research has been on the effect on those who actually received rewards. He asked the question, what about the effect on the motivation of those who do not receive them? This immediately took me back to school when colours were awarded for sports and I didn’t get one for trampolining (or anything else!!), despite having won a competition, when the girls who did get one hadn’t won anything. Motivating? I don’t think so! Coo, still hurts…. Maybe I should get some therapy!

Extrinsic motivation
Ryan discussed the SDT extrinsic motivation continuum:
• External: I must
• Introjected: I should
• Identified: I want to
• Integrated: It is important to me

These are, in effect, levels of extrinsic motivation with external being “worst” and integrated “best”. This is where those things that are not fun or enjoyable or challenging fit! For example, I do not enjoy peeling potatoes, but it is very important to me that I have them with certain meals, so I do it from an integrated position. I do not enjoy updating online course records, but the value system on which they are based is one I identify with, so I do it from an identified position.

One element of this theory that was new to me was the idea that people could be in more than one place on this continuum at any one time.

Ryan also reported a study which found that, in the US, only 40% of people actually took their prescribed medication and linked this to their autonomy. When they were helped to move from external or introjected to identified or integrated, it made a big difference. I don’t think he stated the percentage difference… if he did I didn’t hear it, but the message is clear. For us, as therapists, we need to support the client to have volitional autonomy in choosing whether to go along with any suggestions that we impart. This, of course, tallies with the humanistic idea that the client has their own answers, just adds a slightly different dynamic to the equation.

Ryan showed data from Teixeira et al (2006) which showed a really strong correlation between exercise motivation and sustained weight loss following a weight control programme: interesting for those of us who work with this issue!
I found it fascinating to hear about Ryan’s research on video games. His theory is that the developers are, intentionally or not, meeting the needs. It is rare, in real life, for competence to continually level up, but it does in these games. Autonomy is often complete: apparently (I don’t know about these things), one can drive through bank windows and shoot prostitutes at will or drive wildly around the streets and of course, in real life, autonomy doesn’t go that far.

Recent developments also allow for relatedness in a very “safe” way, by allowing people to play the games together over the internet, so this need is met in an unreal but quite satisfying way, without the usual worries getting in the way. No wonder they are popular!

I was amazed to hear that the average age for a gamer is 38! Not that that is particularly relevant to anything, just a fun fact!

More useful, for society as a whole, potentially, is Ryan’s finding that the level of violence in games has no correlation to its popularity. It seems that it is simply that violence and sport are the easiest “stories” for developers to translate to the medium of gaming. He is currently negotiating with some major games companies with the intention of showing them that they only need to put in a bit of effort to change the angle of games and rid the world of any potential problems with the violence aspect in social development of children.

Ryan went on to discuss well-being, quoting research that showed that student’s self reports of well-being would rise dramatically on Friday evening and drop again on Sunday evening (surprise, surprise) but of course this correlates perfectly with autonomy. He explained that our moment to moment well-being is linked to how we are doing on the three needs at that time.

He briefly discussed his own slant on attachment theory, saying that we should move on from Bowlby to recognise that people have different attachment relationships with different people and that these can, in some instances vary hugely.

For example someone could be securely attached to their spouse but avoidently attached to their mother and ambivalently to their father. Another fun fact: US male students are, on average as securely attached to their randomly assigned roommate as to their father!

Finally Ryan briefly reported findings from research showing that vitality (a component of well-being) is greatly affected by nature, either being out in nature, or even by viewing pictures of nature! A nice little thought to finish with!

Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (1985) Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press
Teixeira, P. J., Going, S. B., Houtkooper, L. B., Cussler, E. C., Metcalfe, L. L., Blew, R. M., Sardinha, L. B., & Lohman, T. G. (2006). Exercise motivation, eating, and body image variables as predictors of weight control. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 38, 179-188.

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