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Professor Richard Ryan

For the fun of it

When it comes to career awards and recognitions, Richard M. Ryan can boast a hefty list. He is currently ranked as the number one psychology researcher in Australia, and sixth globally, and is arguably the world’s leading active theorist of human motivation. The list goes on: Three lifetime achievement awards. Research articles and book chapters with hundreds of thousands of citations. Recognised as one of the most influential psychologists of the modern era.

And yet, it’s hard to get Professor Ryan too excited about these accolades. After all, he has spent much of his adult life championing the cause of intrinsic motivation – the inherent human incentive to engage in challenges and tasks for pure enjoyment, regardless of external rewards and recognitions. 

“Truthfully,” Professor Ryan says, sitting in his office at ACU in North Sydney, “things like rankings and citations, they don’t have much of an impact on me.”

On the plus side, they prove that the influence of his work has been widespread.  

“They do, and I’m really pleased about that,” he adds. “But I try not to focus on external rewards as goals because I think it can contaminate your thinking to do so. I want to pursue good work that has real meaning to me and the people around me, and which I hope other people can benefit from.”

Birth of a theory

To explore the origin of Richard Ryan’s interest in the subject of human motivation, we must travel back to the United States in the 1970s, when he graduated with a philosophy major at the University of Connecticut.

“My draw to philosophy was really intrinsically motivated,” he recalls. “I was interested in the big questions: ‘What is life all about? What is the meaning of our existence? Where are we going with that?’ Philosophy was a place to look for answers to such questions, and I found it incredibly engaging.”

It was here that he started to investigate the topics of human freedom and autonomy, and the Aristotelian notion of wellbeing or eudaimonia, concepts he would explore in greater detail later in his career.   

When Ryan moved to New York to pursue graduate studies in clinical psychology and research in neuropsychology at the University of Rochester, he met a fellow researcher named Edward Deci, a social psychologist who was already turning heads with his work on intrinsic motivation. In an early experiment, when Deci tasked two groups of psychology students with solving a puzzle, those who were paid to participate tended to lose interest, while the remainder continued trying to solve it. He concluded that the students who were paid had lost their intrinsic motivation to complete the task. 

At the time, the study of motivational psychology was dominated by behaviourists, who believed that people had to be poked and prodded into action with rewards and punishments. Deci and Ryan had other ideas. 

As the young psychologists compared notes, exploring the synergies between Deci’s ideas on intrinsic motivation and Ryan’s interest in autonomy and wellbeing, they realised they had the beginnings of a theory. 

“We recognised that all people have motivations that develop from within us, things we find inherently enjoyable and challenging in a positive way,” says Professor Ryan, who co-authored his first joint paper with Deci in 1980. 

Professor Richard Ryan and Edward Deci

Richard and Edward in 2010.

“As we were looking at the kinds of factors that led to people being more intrinsically motivated, we saw that they were grounded in the basic human needs for autonomy, competency, and relatedness.”

At the same time, these factors also predicted people’s level of wellness. 

“Those who had high-quality motivation, they were also more vital, more flourishing, had higher wellbeing, and that’s what led us to develop a general theory of human behaviour, with these three fundamental needs as core characteristics.”

In 1985, after years of collaborative research, Deci and Ryan emerged with Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior, their first book on Self-Determination Theory (SDT). 

It put the trailblazing duo on the map, leading hundreds of other scholars to build on their initial findings. In the decades since, SDT has become the world’s most cited theory of motivation, applied to many spheres of life including the workplace, professional sport, healthcare, education, and personal relationships. 

“Part of what has caught so much interest is that SDT is a practical and applicable theory – it’s complex but it’s easily translatable to everyday people,” says Professor Ryan, pointing to Dan Pink, Justin Coulson and Susan Fowler as examples of mainstream writers and presenters who have helped to popularise the theory. 

“I’m a scientist, so my writing is pretty far from popular writing. For that reason, I’m really pleased when people bring the research to the public in such ways. When writers translate this work and retain the spirit of the work, more people can benefit from it, and in the end, that’s really what matters.” 

Making an impact

In the early days of the Deci and Ryan partnership, when they both practised as clinical psychologists, they were influenced by theorists like George Albee, a leading figure in the development of community psychology. 

“Albee was making the point that there was nowhere near enough therapists in the world to substantially improve the human condition, even if they were all amazingly good therapists,” says Professor Ryan, who spent 25 years as a trainer of therapists at the University of Rochester. 

“On the other hand, our early research on SDT showed the potential for teachers, managers, coaches and parents to have a positive effect on their students, employees, athletes and children respectively. We realised that by pursuing that work, we could have a greater impact on people’s wellbeing than we could ever have with one-on-one psychotherapy. Doing something at scale just seemed like a good thing to do.”

Richard and Edward (centre) at the 1st International SDT Conference 1999.

Richard and Edward (centre) at the first International SDT Conference in 1999.

In 2014, Professor Ryan came to Australia to join the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education alongside a host of other globally renowned scholars, at a time when ACU was building its reputation as a research university.

Since then, SDT has gone from strength to strength, with an ever-growing cohort of scholars incorporating the findings of new research, adding more elements to the theory and building on the work of its co-founders. This vast body of literature has paved the way for at least 75 meta-analyses on different principles of SDT, further validating its robustness. 

There have, of course, been criticisms. But none so convincing or central that it’s led Ryan and Deci to doubt the theory or its practical application.  

“All theories are constantly criticised, and I would say that on an everyday basis, I’m reading the literature and I’m sensitive to things where there are criticisms,” says Professor Ryan, who acts as President of the Centre for Self-Determination Theory, which works to promote SDT-related research and interventions.

“Despite this, we haven’t experienced any challenges that has led us to think, ‘Oh no, this theory’s got a major flaw in it’.”

As his long list of publications and citations would suggest, Professor Ryan has retained a steely focus on scientific research, pursuing his interest in SDT with studies on anything from mindfulness to video games. But he also sees himself as a practitioner. 

“I do parent, teacher and leadership workshops, and in such workshops, I don’t go in there and spout a lot of theory,” he says. 

“We often begin by telling stories. For example, I’ll ask a group of teachers, ‘Who was your most motivating teacher?’ And guess what? Their answers invariably reveal that the most motivating teachers were those who used autonomy-supportive techniques, who were connecting with students in a way that promoted relatedness, and who were providing a structure where people felt they could be competent and successful in learning.

“I consistently find that the theory will implicitly break out, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s backed by a strong evidence base, and it also makes sense in the real world across life spheres – in schools, organisations, families, and many other aspects of society.”

Pursuing a passion

After 70 years of life and five decades as a researcher and theorist, Richard Ryan’s passion for human motivation and psychological wellbeing remains strong. 

“I still feel like I have a lot to contribute, and I’m pretty acute when it comes to methods and theory,” he says. “As long as that’s the case and I find this fun and enjoyable, I’ll keep going.”

But while his quest for knowledge has not subsided, he doesn’t plan to work forever.  

“There are a lot of things in life that I’m intrinsically motivated to do, and I’m not worried about being bored when I stop doing this research.”

When the time comes to hang up the lab coat, he’ll continue painting, a pastime he has pursued for some 30 years. He’ll travel more, and go on long hikes with his wife. 

“There are those things, and I have children and grandchildren, too. I want to attend to them, to spend time with them,” says Professor Ryan, who lives at his long-time home in Rochester. “The other thing is that work is really preoccupying for me, so when it goes away, there’ll be a vacuum. I’m really excited to see what new things might come into that space.” 

When he does retire, as his old friend Edward Deci has already done, Richard Ryan will leave an impressive legacy, and enormous shoes to fill. 

“We’ve seen our work grow from just the two of us to be the phenomenon it is now, which for a long time was surprising to both of us,” he says.   

“It’s heartening to know that there’ll be an international community of researchers ready to steer the ship, that there’ll be many good people to fill the gap we leave.”

Richard M. Ryan is a Professorial Fellow at ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, and Distinguished Professor in the College of Education at Ewha Womans University. He has consulted with organisations, schools, clinics, and healthcare initiatives, and is the co-founder of motivationWorks, a culture-building platform that empowers employees to thrive in the workplace. 

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2024 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G