Rochester Model of Human Motivation Attracts Growing Affirmation at Fourth International Conference

In 1985, with the publication of Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior, University of Rochester psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci launched a new theory for understanding what drives humans. Their model maintained that people are motivated by innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness to others – not, as the reigning theories of the day espoused, by inherited instincts or learned responses.

In May, as their Self-Determination Theory observed its quarter century mark with a scientific conference in Ghent, Belgium, it was clear that the Rochester psychological framework is thriving. The four-day conference attracted 128 papers and 276 posters presented by 550 researchers from almost every country in Europe, plus the United States, Canada, China, Russia, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Jordan, Iran, South Africa, Peru, and Colombia.

Application of SDT, as the theory is referred to in the field, included research on everything from well-being and vitality to work management, exercise, health care, relationships, sustainability, religion, nutrition, gaming, parenting and more. Experimental methodology spanned the spectrum, from classic behavioral studies to biological investigations based on brain imaging.

"The beauty of the theory is that it has proven so useful in so many different fields," says Deci, professor of psychology and Gowen Professor in the Social Sciences. "And it has encouraged lots of cross-cultural analysis to see if these principles hold true in different cultural contexts."

"The topic is not trivial – human wellness and motivation are core issues," adds Ryan, professor of psychology, psychiatry, and education. He further credits the growing international interest in Self-Determination Theory to its accessibility and direct implications for management, health care, coaching and school settings; identifying how to motivate others is a high priority regardless of one's global address.

Some of the most surprising insights to emerge from SDT research call into question the traditional use of incentives. For example, behavioral research has shown that extrinsic rewards, like money or grades, actually undermine a person's interest in voluntarily engaging in a task. In short, rewards can backfire.

Kou Murayama from the University of Munich, Germany explored the neurobiology underlying this counterintuitive finding at the conference. In a recent study, Murayama and his colleagues scanned the brains of participants before and after completing a timed task. One group of participants was promised a reward. A second group performed the task with no incentive, although afterward they were surprised with compensation.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the study showed that entirely different areas of the brain are activated by the same task depending on whether a person anticipates a payoff or not. When focused on a reward, the brain switches off those areas associated with voluntary or self-initiated activities.

In other innovative work at the conference, researchers designed studies based on self-determination principles to support weight management, mitigate racism, and improve oral health. For example, Ann Münster Halvari at the University of Olso, Norway, created a dental intervention in which hygienists listened to and acknowledged the patient's dental concerns (relatedness); demonstrated correct brushing and flossing technique (competence); and encouraged choice from a variety of treatment options (autonomy). The results? Over a seven-month period, study participants showed a marked decrease in plaque and gingivitis relative to the control group that received standard dental care.

The theory is guiding the development of health care treatments at home as well. Researchers at the University, including Geoffrey Williams '93 (PhD), a professor of medicine, psychiatry, and psychology, and Holly McGregor Lavigne '03 (PhD), a research assistant professor of medicine, presented results from a SDT-based clinical trial of tobacco cessation. This study showed that when people who smoke are offered information, choices, and options about quitting from their medical practitioners (autonomy support), they experience giving up smoking as a personally important choice they are making (autonomy), feel competent in their cessation attempts, and tend to be more successful in quitting.