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«63 The British Psychological British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2006), 45, 63–82 Society q 2006 The British Psychological Society ...»

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Copyright © The British Psychological Society

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British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2006), 45, 63–82


q 2006 The British Psychological Society


There’s nothing more practical than a good

theory: Integrating motivational interviewing and

self-determination theory

Maarten Vansteenkiste1* and Kennon M. Sheldon2


University of Leuven, Belgium 2 University of Missouri, USA In this article we compare and integrate two well-established approaches to motivating therapeutic change, namely self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000) and motivational interviewing (MI; Miller & Rollnick, 1991, 2002). We show that SDT’s theoretical focus on the internalization of therapeutic change and on the issue of need- satisfaction is fully compatible with key principles and clinical strategies within MI. We further suggest that basic need-satisfaction might be an important mechanism accounting for the positive effects of MI. Conversely, MI principles may provide SDT researchers with new insight into the application of SDT’s theoretical concept of autonomy-support, and suggest new ways of testing and developing SDT. In short, the applied approach of MI and the theoretical approach of SDT might be fruitfully married, to the benefit of both.

‘There is nothing more practical than a good theory,’ wrote Lewin (1952, p. 169).

Lewin’s message was twofold: theorists should try to provide new ideas for understanding or conceptualizing a (problematic) situation, ideas which may suggest potentially fruitful new avenues of dealing with that situation. Conversely, applied researchers should provide theorists with key information and facts relevant to solving a practical problem, facts that need to be conceptualized in a detailed and coherent manner. More generally, theorists should strive to create theories that can be used to solve social or practical problems, and practitioners and researchers in applied psychology should make use of available scientific theory (Lens, 1987; Sarason, 1978).

Herein, we attempt to show that two different lines of research relevant to clinical practice, namely the techniques of motivational interviewing (MI; Miller & Rollnick, 1991, 2002) and the principles of self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000, 2002), can be integrated, providing theorists and clinicians with a good, practical theory.

* Correspondence should be addressed to Maarten Vansteenkiste, Department of Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium (e-mail: maarten.vansteenkiste@psy.kuleuven.be).

The first author’s contribution was supported by the Grant for Scientific Research Flanders (FWO-vlaanderen) DOI:10.1348/014466505X34192 Copyright © The British Psychological Society Reproduction in any form (including the internet) is prohibited without prior permission from the Society 64 Maarten Vansteenkiste and Kennon M. Sheldon The promises and current limitations of self-determination theory SDT is a broad-based theory of human motivation, which has been under development for more than 30 years. The theory is meant to specify the fundamental causes, processes, and outcomes of human thriving, in particular by conceptualizing the nature of ‘optimal motivation,’ and the general conditions that support or undermine such motivation. SDT has a clear prescription for how to motivate other people to do well and thrive: namely, support their autonomy. This general prescription (discussed in more detail later on) has received considerable empirical confirmation, first in experimental studies (see Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999, for a review of this work from the 1980s), and later, in the 1990s, in many field studies in domains as diverse as education, business, sports, unemployment, and parenting, focusing on many different positive outcomes, such as learning and knowledge integration, optimal performance, persistence, positive mood, adaptive personality change, and cooperative behaviour (for overviews see Deci & Ryan, 2000, 2002; Vallerand, 1997). The theory has more recently been applied to various health-related domains (see Sheldon, Joiner, & Williams, 2003; Williams, 2002 for an overview), as researchers have shown that patients who experience their practitioners as being autonomy-supportive benefit the most from treatment.

Although SDT’s basic theoretical premises have received much support, still, the theory has received the least application in the fields of clinical psychology and psychological counselling. Thus, the theory’s basic concept of ‘autonomy-support’ has yet to receive the articulation it deserves in the subtle and difficult context of motivating people towards psychological change. We suggest that MI, which provides many psychotherapeutic techniques that are fully consistent with SDT’s concept of autonomysupport, may help to fill in these details.

The promises and current limitations of motivational interviewing MI is one of the most popular and dominant contemporary approaches (Simoneau & Bergeron, 2003) to enhancing clients’ treatment motivation. It was developed from clinical practice, which yielded cumulative insights into the best ways to help clients be proactive participants in therapy. As we will show below, MI provides many practical principles that, if skilfully applied, can promote treatment motivation, perhaps especially among those patients in the earlier stages of change (DiClemente & Prochaska, 1998). These principles, such as expressing empathy, developing discrepancy, and rolling with resistance (Miller & Rollnick, 2002) have been shown to be effective in a number of domains such as addiction treatment, diet, exercise, hypertension, diabetes, and bulimia, although the theory has received less empirical confirmation in the domains of smoking cessation and HIV risk behaviours (Burke, Arkowitz, & Dunn, 2002; Burke, Arkowitz, & Menchola, 2003; Dunn, DeRoo, & Rivara, 2001; Noonan & Moyers, 1997; Stotts, Schmitz, Rhoades, & Garbowski, 2001, but see Miller, Yahne, & Tonigan, 2003). Importantly, MI interventions did not only result in improvement in target symptoms, but also had a significant impact upon social functioning, suggesting that MI treatment has positive consequences for a wide range of important life problems beyond the target problems (Burke et al., 2003).1 1 Notably, the efficacy of MI in its pure form (i.e. expressing empathy, developing discrepancy, rolling with resistance, and supporting self-efficacy; Miller & Rollnick, 2002) has rarely been tested (Burke et al., 2003). Most empirical studies are adaptations of motivational interviewing, because they are also defined by the presence of feedback about the client’s level of severity of target symptoms compared with norms. Burke et al. mention that future studies need to investigate whether the obtained therapeutic effect is due to motivational interviewing principles, delivered feedback, or the combination of both.

Copyright © The British Psychological Society Reproduction in any form (including the internet) is prohibited without prior permission from the Society

Self-determination theory and motivational interviewing 65

However, in order to further improve and extend the clinical MI-interventions, an understanding of the basic processes by which MI works seems necessary. Indeed, although various theoretical insights grew out of the clinical experience, this practicefocused development of MI also implies that the theory may lack the conceptual refinement that characterizes SDT. For instance, we will argue that SDT might help to improve the specific conceptualization of the positive motivation that MI engenders.

In addition, in spite of the intuitive attractiveness of MI (Walitzer, Dermer, & Connors, 1999), it has had little to say about the mediating processes by which these techniques have effect and SDT might help to fill this gap (Burke et al., 2002). Perhaps because of these limitations, the principles and insights of MI have not yet received the interest and attention they deserve from theorists and non-clinical researchers.

The marriage of two theories Accordingly, in this article we propose a ‘marriage’ between the two schools, such that each can be used to complement and fill in the other’s weaknesses. Notably, we do not claim that MI is purely situated in the area of applied psychology, or that SDT is purely situated in the realm of theoretical psychology – researchers in both traditions have been continually concerned about developing coherent conceptual frameworks that can be used to tackle real-life problems. Nevertheless, it is true that SDT has been somewhat more concerned with theory, and MI somewhat more concerned with effective technique: thus, the potential complementarity.

The two frameworks will be compared on four different levels. First, we will indicate that the theories’ basic prescriptions for conducting treatment and enhancing client treatment motivation are generally the same. Second, we will argue that MI might benefit from SDT’s more fine-grained analysis of the different types of motivation. Third, we will argue that SDT can help to clarify ‘why MI works’ (Miller & Rollnick, 2002, p. 28). In particular, we will argue that SDT’s psychological needs approach (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan, 1995) provides a useful way to reinterpret and reorganize the MI principles and techniques outlined by Miller and Rollnick. Fourth, we will try to show that MI can provide SDT researchers with deeper insights into the application of autonomy-support in therapy, insights that deserve empirical attention and elaboration within the SDT framework. We will consider each of these four arguments in greater detail, below.

Similar general approach Common origin Both theories were developed, in part, out of dissatisfaction with existing dominant theoretical frameworks, particularly frameworks that de-emphasize the phenomenology of the individual. The aim of the first SDT studies on the effects of external rewards on intrinsic motivation (Deci, 1971) was to show that, contradictory to behaviouristic principles (Skinner, 1974), external contingencies such as rewards, deadlines, and pressures can actually undermine, rather than support, peoples’ voluntary taskpersistence. Further research revealed that this is because externally motivated participants typically do not experience their task-engagement as self-initiated, autonomous, or self-chosen (Deci et al., 1999). Instead, they often come to feel controlled by the external factors, thus tending to lose or failing to develop enjoyment and valuation of the task for its own sake.

Copyright © The British Psychological Society Reproduction in any form (including the internet) is prohibited without prior permission from the Society

66 Maarten Vansteenkiste and Kennon M. Sheldon

In a similar vein, MI developed in part from dissatisfaction with the prescriptive nature of many treatment approaches. For example, confrontational therapies (e.g.

DiCocco, Unterberger, & Mack, 1978; Moore & Murphy, 1961) say that clinicians should confront people with the strongest potential negative effects of their current situation, so as to enhance the threat – such fear is thought to be the energizer of the change process. As another example, rational-emotive therapy involves confronting clients with their ‘irrational cognitions’, as defined by the therapist (Ellis, 1962), and pressuring the client to change them. In contrast, Miller and Rollnick (2002) argue that fear-inducing or pressuring communications can immobilize the individual, making the possibility of change more remote (Miller, Benefield, & Tonigan, 1993; Patterson & Forgatch, 1985).

Rather than being confrontational and controlling or trying to directly persuade clients to change (Stockwell, 1995), clinicians should instead try to create a situation in which clients engage in self-exploration and contemplation of change. This, in turn, improves clients’ treatment decisions because these come from themselves rather than from the clinician (Amrhein, Miller, Yahne, Palmer, & Fulcher, 2003; Ginsburg, Mann, Rotgers, & Weekes, 2002). In short, both SDT and MI developed as alternatives to theoretical paradigms that emphasize the external controls, contingencies, or criticisms that can influence human behaviour.

Shared assumptions regarding human nature and therapy Further, MI and SDT also share a common set of metatheoretical beliefs regarding positive human nature. Both theories claim that clients possess a powerful potential for change – that a client is an active, growth-oriented organism who has a natural tendency towards personal development and change, and that every client has strong inner resources to realize such change. The task of the clinician is to evoke and strengthen this inner resourcefulness, facilitating the natural change process that is already inherent in the individual, rather than trying to impose motivation or ‘install’ a change process via the use of externally controlling strategies. Thus, for both MI and SDT, counselling is not a prescriptive activity in which the therapist directs and guides the change process, but rather an eliciting or drawing out of motivation from people by supporting their inner resources and authentic world-view. Miller and Rollnick (2002) label this approach as MI, or ‘a together looking at something’ (p. 25). As we will see below, this is also what is generally meant by SDT’s concept of autonomy-support.

Notably, the principles advocated by both approaches can be described as ‘contentfree’. That is, they are independent of what message or programme is being promoted, instead focusing on how it is promoted. This implies that they can be applied to enhance almost any particular form of treatment, because they are primarily concerned with the manner (i.e. collaborative/supportive versus confrontational) in which treatment interventions are delivered (Geller, Brown, Zaitsoff, Goodrich, & Hastings, 2003).

Consistent with this claim, Sheldon et al. (2003) demonstrated that being autonomysupportive is fully compatible with many existing clinical approaches, such as cognitivebehavioural therapy, desensitization therapy, and interpersonal therapy.

Using SDT to clarify MI’s conception of motivation The motivation for change: Intrinsic, or internalized extrinsic?

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