Personal Autonomy

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Personal autonomy refers to a person's sense of self-determination, of being able to make choices regarding the direction of her or his own actions, including the freedom to pursue those choices. With personal autonomy, an individual is able to engage in effective self-regulation—successfully monitoring needs and values; responding adaptively to the environment, and initiating, organizing, and directing actions toward the achievement of needs. For some theorists, the psychological experience of autonomy has its origin in the organism's natural tendency to organize both itself and its environment in the pursuit of goals. In this view, a sense of autonomy requires the absence of restraining forces that can limit this natural tendency. Importantly, feelings of autonomy are not only crucial for adequate intrapersonal functioning—competent action and adequate psychological health—but are also essential for the adequate functioning of a healthy society.


Early personality theorists viewed autonomy as one element of a dialectical process in the developing self. Angyal (1941), for example, proposed that personality develops in the context of two conflicting pressures, autonomy and surrender (or homonomy). A pull toward autonomy leads toward differentiation from other people and the physical environment, connoting individuation, separation, independence, freedom, and the like. The tendency toward autonomy, however, is met by a countervailing pull toward surrender, felt by the individual as a desire to become part of something greater than oneself, uniting with others and with the physical environment. Surrender is reflected in concepts such as community, union, interdependence, and obligation. A similar dialectic can be seen in the theorizing of Otto Rank (1929) and David Bakan (1966). For instance, in Bakan's approach, a concept comparable to autonomy is agency, a tendency toward manipulation that results in aloofness and differentiation of the personality. Agency is viewed as occurring in conflict with communion, a tendency that pushes a person toward connectedness and personality coherence.

The dialectical view of autonomy is interesting, suggesting as it does that autonomy has little meaning outside some notion of wholeness or integration against which the individuating, segregating pressure of autonomy can push. More recent theorists also seem to understand that the concept of autonomy implies the question "Autonomy from what?" But rather than viewing autonomy as one element in an intrapsychic union of opposites, current conceptualizations focus on conflicts between an individual's need for self-determination and potential external constraints encountered in the social environment (Deci and Ryan 1985; Ryan et al. 1997). In this view, autonomy is conceptualized as reflecting the organism's natural developmental trajectory toward increasing complexity and the concomitant press toward greater organization of its environment in the process of self-development (Ryan et al. 1997). But, of course this natural development is not guaranteed. Insufficient resources—such as insecure attachment in infancy, emotional detachment in adolescence, inadequate social support in adulthood, or even neurobiological deficits in the individual—represent potential oppositional forces to the expression of autonomy. Desires for interpersonal relatedness do not stand in conflict with autonomy needs from such a perspective, but rather play a supportive role (Ryan 1991). Thus, the development of autonomy requires responsive parental nurturing, including recognition of and support for the child's expression of autonomy. In adulthood, the sense of autonomy is facilitated by an interpersonal environment that allows the individual to view his or her intentions to act as being caused by internal, personal motivations rather than being caused by external sources.


Theories relevant to an understanding of autonomy all share the assumption that individuals are motivated in some way to have the freedom to determine their own fate. For instance, deCharms (1968) proposed a general motivational tendency to strive to be an agent of causality. Individuals who initiate an intentional behavior experience themselves as the causal origin of the action and as intrinsically motivated. Individuals who do not experience personal causation, but rather view themselves as pawns being impelled by external causes will experience action as being extrinsically motivated.

Causality Orientations Theory. Intrinsic motivation is viewed as a basic ongoing motivational propensity of all individuals that directs activity unless it is blocked in some way (Deci and Ryan 1985). Major constraints on experiencing intrinsic motivation can include stable or transient individual differences in the ways that individuals make sense of events. The most important causal orientations for understanding autonomy are the autonomy orientation and the control orientation. Individuals experiencing an autonomy orientation do not feel their behavior to be controlled by external contingencies. Instead, the individuals' experiences are ones of choice, flexibility, awareness of needs, effective accommodation to the environment, and responsiveness to available information. Such individuals are able to effectively seek out situations that allow them to experience autonomy, to use information in initiating action, and to be resilient in the face of difficulties. Only in an individual experiencing a "control orientation" does the tension between desired autonomy and controlling forces become salient and intrinsic motivation become reduced. In situations requiring action, such individuals experience feelings of pressure and anxiety, and action comes to be viewed as controlled by either internal factors not of their making (e.g., perceived obligations) or external forces (Deci and Ryan 1985). An individual's causal orientation is important because failure to experience autonomy is associated with reduced functioning, poorer health, and increased psycho-pathology (Deci and Ryan 1987; Ryan et al. 1995).

Undermining Effects of Reward on Intrinsic Motivation. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are affected not only by individuals' orientations toward explaining the causes of their actions, but also by the presence of external rewards or punishments for engaging in certain actions. Engaging in an intrinsically motivated activity means that it is the feelings of enjoyment and excitement that result from the activity that are rewarding. Presence of other rewards is unnecessary to such experiences (Deci and Ryan 1985). In fact, an important finding is that receiving rewards can be detrimental for behavior that is normally intrinsically motivated. Children or adults who begin receiving rewards for engaging in such behavior may find motivation for that activity to become extrinsic in nature (Lepper and Greene 1978). Paradigmatic demonstrations of this phenomenon involve paying college students for performing enjoyable tasks such as solving puzzles and giving children a ribbon and gold star as a good-player award for playing with magic markers (Deci 1971; Lepper et al. 1973). Subsequent to receiving rewards, interest in the activity can be decreased once rewards are again absent. This decrease in task interest is thought to indicate a shift toward extrinsic motivation for performance of the task. Moreover, rewards can have similarly deleterious effects on tasks that require an individual to be creative.

Both the pervasiveness and the interpretation of these negative effects on task interest and creativity remain matters of heated debate (Eisenberger and Cameron 1996, 1998; Hennessey and Amabile 1998; Lepper 1998; Sansone and Harackiewicz 1998). There do, however, appear to be some reliable conditions under which tangible rewards such as money, candy, or gold stars decrease intrinsic motivation. Receiving expected rewards regardless of the quality of one's performance leads participants to subsequently spend less time engaging in a task once the reward is removed.

Cognitive Evaluation Theory. The primary autonomy-based interpretation for reduced task interest comes from cognitive evaluation theory (Deci and Ryan 1985). Cognitive evaluation theory suggests that, to the extent that rewards are controlling, intrinsic motivation will be decreased. Controlling events are ones that make individuals feel pressured to behave in a certain way. The presence of controlling events decreases feelings of self-determination by leading perceivers to believe that they are acting in order to receive a desired outcome. For example, tangible rewards like money or physical awards that are given regardless of the quality of the work can lead an individual to view actions as being instrumental for getting a desired outcome, and thus as controlled by those rewards. But receiving rewards can also be informative, conveying that one is competent. Such feedback about performance increases intrinsic motivation. Thus, in some contexts the informational function of a reward may override the decrease in intrinsic motivation that results from its controlling function. This is particularly the case, according to cognitive evaluation theory, for unexpected or intangible rewards such as praise. In addition, when receipt of a reward is contingent on performance, a tangible cue highly symbolic of one's achievement can also be intrinsically motivating (Harackiewicz et al. 1984; Sansone and Harackiewicz 1998). Related research on creativity has been explained in terms of how rewards can orient the individual toward goal-relevant stimuli. For creativity tasks where one's thinking needs to be divergent and less stimulus-bound, such a goal-related focus can be counterproductive, reducing the cognitive flexibility and intense involvement in a task needed for producing novel solutions (Amabile 1983).

The findings regarding intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have important implications for the ideal socialization of members of a society (Ryan et al. 1997). One task of a society is appropriate socialization of its members, directing their behavior in productive avenues. In a sense, a major task of culture is to provide individuals with appropriate means of determining how their lives can contribute to a fuller development of humankind, offering as it were, an appropriate avenue for "heroism" (Becker 1971). Ryan and colleagues (1991, 1997) argue that creating individuals who are cooperative and not alienated from society requires that socializing agents provide opportunities for autonomy within a supportive context of belongingness. Behavior that is experienced as occurring either under social pressures or from internal forces of incompletely integrated, or introjected, societal values will not be experienced as autonomous. Successful internalization of societal values such that they result in intrinsically motivated behavior is thus ideal for effective functioning of a society.

Reactance Theory. A second theory that has implications for understanding decreased interest in a task after receiving controlling rewards is reactance theory. From this perspective, loss of autonomy, of ability to choose to engage in some action, means loss of freedom. Thus, when individuals begin to anticipate a reward for behavior that was previously driven solely by intrinsic motives, they may in some contexts come to see that reward as an attempt to impose on them some type of action-outcome contingency. They may feel a sense that the attempt is intended to restrict their ability to freely engage or not engage in the activity at will. This loss of expected freedom induces a state of psychological tension known as reactance (Brehm 1993; Brehm and Brehm 1981). Reactance involves the experience of active, negative emotional states such as frustration and anger, and results in an individual's engaging in active attempts to regain the lost freedoms. From this perspective, reduced interest in a task is not a result of declining intrinsic motivation per se, but is merely an expression of a general motivation to regain lost freedom of choice. It is important to note that defiant rebellion against controlling influences does not necessarily mean regaining freedom. Automatically withdrawing effort from activities that were previously pleasing means that one's choices are being controlled in an oppositional way by those external influences (Deci and Ryan 1985).


The recent conception of autonomy proposed by Deci and Ryan (1985) is similar in many ways to an earlier notion of the motivation to have effective interaction with one's environment, effectance motivation (White 1959). White proposed that a variety of behaviors of the active organism, such as play, exploration, and active curiosity, can best be explained by proposing a need to engage in activities that lead to feelings of efficacy, and that allow the developing organism to become competent. Thus the notion of an effectance or mastery motive is closely related to a motive for autonomy in that both reflect a force that directs the organism toward increasing competence in managing the self and personal goals, or in managing one's environment. Indeed, the need for autonomy, mastery, and a third motive, power (Winter 1973) can all be viewed as reflections of an organism's need for personal control over various domains of their life (Marsh et al. 1998). Personal control involves a contingency between actions and outcomes, a sense of having in one's repertoire actions that can increase the likelihood of getting desired outcomes. Thus needs for power reflect a need for control over the social environment, and needs for mastery reflect a need for control over the physical and nonsocial environment; autonomy reflects intrapersonal control needs. From such a control motivation perspective, autonomy is reflected in controlling the self, regulating emotional responses, and making decisions regarding one's actions. A key assumption of such an approach is that autonomy involves beliefs about contingency—notions about oneself as a causal force, consistent with deCharm's (1968) notion of origins versus pawns. A particularly distinguishing feature of need for autonomy as a control motive is that it becomes defined in large part as reflecting a need to resist others' controlling influence. From Deci and Ryan's (1985) perspective, however, autonomy is about the choice over what action-outcome contingencies to explore, not about control per se. From their perspective, need for self-determination is quite independent of control needs; it is in a sense prior to control. Thus, if control needs are about whether the individual can have a shot at winning a game through his or her actions, autonomy is about having the choice of whether to enter the game—to decide whether to try to explore the contingencies, regardless of whether or not there are contingencies once the choice is made. Such need for autonomy is a proactive, ever-present force, not a reactive force that emerges in response to loss of intrapersonal control. In this way autonomy has an element much like early notions of mastery needs; effectance motivation was explicitly hypothesized to not be a deficit-based need and thus was viewed as dissimilar to tissue-deficit drives like hunger (White 1959).

However, the research on the effects of reward on intrinsic motivation makes it clear how sensitive the experience of autonomy is to deficits of autonomy. Autonomy is uniquely about freedom from control, in that having the freedom to explore contingencies in the world, to attend to intrinsic experiences of action rather than having to attend to the controlling features of a situation, is, in a real sense, about the ability to have control over oneself. In fact, individuals who have greater needs for autonomy show somewhat greater ability to detect another's nonverbal displays in which affect and expression of dominance versus passivity are expressed; needs for power, in contrast, are uncorrelated with such skill (Marsh et al. 1999). Perhaps the nonverbal behavior of others is more informative to an individual with greater need for autonomy because the intentions of others might offer some threat to one's own freedom. Thus, considering autonomy within a context of control needs, and as potentially involving homeostatic processes (Pittman and Heller 1987), seems to have utility.

In general, though, understanding autonomy and its relationship to different domains of control needs, and understanding the effects of loss of autonomy, seem to be important factors not yet fully explored by social scientists. In particular, many of the cognitive processes that have been explored with loss of control in mastery domains have been less frequently explored in the domain of autonomy. Control motivation research demonstrates that individuals have strong tendencies toward biased perceptions that events are under their personal control, and that cognitive processes function to help maintain such biases. The extent to which autonomy-based action is similarly mediated by biased cognitive processes suggests important questions for future study.

Perhaps the most fundamental question not addressed in current research on autonomy harkens back to personality theorists' beliefs that autonomy motives should be understood as standing in perpetual intrapsychic conflict with the need of the individual for surrender and communion with others. If such forces operate independently of one another, separate theories for autonomy and control and for belongingness processes are reasonable. On the other hand, early theorists may be correct in the belief that the desire for autonomy, control, and independence act in a continual creative conflict with the individual's desire for social acceptance, integration, and union. From such a perspective, the tension may result in emergent phenomena not otherwise predicted by considering the needs independently of one another. Reexamining this dynamic tension may provide a useful next direction for developing a more complete picture of the impact of autonomy needs on the individual and on his or her connection with other individuals, important social groups, and society.


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Kerry L. Marsh