Richard Ryan || Self-Determination Theory & Human Motivation

September 17, 2021

Today it’s great to have Richard Ryan on the podcast. Dr. Ryan is a professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University in North Sydney and professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Rochester. Dr. Ryan is a clinical psychologist and co-developer of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), one of the leading theories of human motivation. He’s among the most cited researchers in psychology and social sciences today, ranking among the top 1% of researchers in the field. Dr. Ryan has been recognized as one of the eminent psychologists of the modern era, listed among the top 20 most influential industrial organizational psychologists and has been honored with many distinguished career awards. He’s co-author with Edward Deci of the book Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness.


  • Dr. Ryan’s interest in psychology
  • Dr. Ryan’s influences in psychology and philosophy
  • What is self-determination?
  • The continuum of motivation
  • The underdog narrative as a motivating force
  • Self-Determination Theory’s Basic Needs
  • Is benevolence a basic need?
  • Ego involvement in exploration and self-esteem
  • Dr. Ryan’s attempt to meet Maslow
  • Transcendence, mindfulness, and integration
  • Self-Determination Theory in relationships
  • Changing organization culture through motivationWorks
  • How do we fix the current education system?
  • Dr. Ryan’s view of positive psychology
  • SDT as a criterion to improve social policy
  • Dr. Ryan’s upcoming projects

6 Responses to “Richard Ryan || Self-Determination Theory & Human Motivation”

  1. Anon says:

    Normally I love your podcast but it was painful to listen to the episode where you kept arguing with Dr. Ryan.

    • Scott Barry Kaufman says:

      Would you prefer that I never disagree with any of my guests respectfully?

      • Dominic Parry says:

        Personally I really enjoy the respectful disagreements on your podcast. I have read your book Transcend as well as Edward and Deci’s book on SDT so I loved this episode. It was interesting to hear you articulate the same potential problem that I initially had, and still have to some degree, about SDT. Namely that it implies that all introjected motivation is less preferred than more internalized forms. While I still believe that more internalized forms of motivation are preferable in most contexts, I wonder to what extent more external forms, either on their own or in combination with more internalized forms, might be adaptive in some contexts.

        Still, I prefer SDT as my primary framework for thinking about motivation, though other frameworks such as yours are useful as well.

  2. Lisa Edmondson says:

    Thanks Scott, I really loved this podcast! Ive been reading about SDT and hearing Dr Ryan discuss the topic really brought it to life. It enhanced my understanding of the theory and its applications to real life situations, which is sometimes lacking in the academic literature. The ontological and philosophical assumptions were outlined and I liked how Dr Ryan put his work in context like this, rather than presenting SDT in a vacuum.

    Unlike another commentator, I enjoyed the sections when you discussed the differences between your ‘Transcend’ model and SDT, as this helped to explore both theories in more depth, and it gave Dr Ryan the opportunity to explain why certain needs (that you posit, in Transcend) weren’t seen as core in SDT. This enabled my understanding of the model further.

    I’d love to know if the references that Dr Ryan, and also yourself, talked about in the podcast are available please? I tried to jot the names down, but being unsure of some spellings, I think Ill struggle to track these down. Thanks again!

  3. Marci says:

    Hi Scott. I really enjoyed this podcast as I do all of your podcasts. I am an elementary school teacher with a genuine curiosity in psychology and cognitive science. I have been listening to your podcast for over a year and have gained great insights that have allowed me to improve myself both professionally and personally.

    One point you made during this discussion was that you are where you are today because teachers did not believe in you and you were motivated by the desire to prove them wrong. I believe in all of my students regardless of their abilities and I work really hard to help them recognize their strengths. I make sure they know they can do anything they want as long as they are willing to put in the effort. So your comment about teachers who did not believe in you felt discouraging. Had I been one of your teachers and believed in your abilities, what would have been the result?

    I agree with you and Rich about the current education system needing a major overhaul. However, I feel Erickson’s developmental stages and Piaget’s cognitive stages need to be considered when looking at our educational system. As adults, we automatically default to abstract thinking, but I spend 6 hours a day with 7-8-year-olds who are still very much in a concrete stage of life. My biggest challenge is breaking things down into that level because I have spent over half of my life being able to process abstract ideas. My classroom culture includes Carol Dweck’s research on mindset and I also employ some of Angela Duckworth’s research on grit even at this stage of development. I ask my students to do the difficult but deliberate practice every day. Most days I get push back from my students because it is human nature to want to take the path of least resistance. However, there are days I see them breaking through the challenges and moving forward. It is very rewarding.

    With that being said. I would love to hear from a researcher or expert who could speak to how we can best maximize developmental and cognitive strategies to help students learn during every stage of their educational lives. I have read Daniel Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School?” and I appreciate his perspective, but I would like to dive deeper and really explore how we can use cognitive and behavioral science to help motivate students to learn at their highest level keeping in mind the different stages they experience as they grow.

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