Professor awarded honorary degree for Self-Determination Theory

Courtesy of Richard Ryan

The University of Thessaly in Greece has awarded Psychology and Education Professor Richard Ryan an honorary doctorate degree for his work on a theory of human motivation called Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

The award was officially presented to Ryan at a ceremony in Volos, Greece on Oct. 16 and was sponsored by four different University of Thessaly departments — physical education, primary education, preschool education and special education — all of which have been influenced by SDT, Ryan said, noting that this evidence of the broad impact of his work made the award even more of an honor.

“It is nice both to have our work acknowledged and in return to have an opportunity to speak with another university community,” he said, adding that the award came as a surprise.

Ryan developed SDT in the 1980s with fellow UR Psychology Professor Edward Deci. The theory revolves around the idea that human well-being depends on meeting psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness. According to selfdeterminationtheory.org, it is “concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways.”

The theory has proven widely applicable in a broad array of fields, including physical and mental health, education, sports, parenting and business, because of its breadth and depth, Ryan said.

Ryan’s multiple appointments across the University speak to the idea of interdisciplinary connections. As of this year, Ryan no longer holds an appointment in psychiatry — his principle appointment is in clinical and social psychology, but he also still holds an appointment in the Warner School of Education where he teaches and consults.

Ryan said that his work as a therapist is “very important to our theorizing” and keeps him in touch with “people’s motivations, defenses and the struggles individuals are engaged in to thrive.”

He also said that his work in education plays a prominent role in SDT. Ryan met with students familiar with his work in Singapore after receiving the award and greeted students in Greece last week. His last SDT conference had representatives from 33 nations in attendance.

“It is both humbling and energizing at the same time to see the reach of this work,” Ryan said. “It is particularly gratifying to see SDT being used as a basis of social change around the world.”

Education and psychology intersect because in both domains a key element is “autonomy support,” Ryan said.

“Both psychotherapy and education are activities in which people’s growth and integrity can be facilitated,” he noted. “In one sense they therefore share some motivational dynamics in common. But their immediate aims differ, as do the techniques applied.”

Ryan joined UR’s psychology department in 1981 after completing his doctorate in clinical psychology at the University. He has authored more than 250 articles, chapters and books as well as given addresses at more than 70 universities worldwide.

Buletti is a member of the class of 2013.



You can contact Leah at leah.buletti@rochester.edu.

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