The term autonomy literally means “self-governing” and thus connotes regulation by the self (auto). Its opposite, heteronomy, refers to regulation by “otherness” (heteron) and thus by forces “other than,” or alien to, the self. In short, autonomy concerns the extent to which a person’s acts are self-determined instead of being coerced or compelled.
Within the field of psychology, the concept of autonomy is both central and controversial. Autonomy is central in that developmental (child), personality, and clinical psychologists have long considered autonomy to be a hallmark of maturation and healthy or optimal functioning. It is controversial in that the concept of autonomy is often confused with concepts such as independence, separateness, and free will, generating debates concerning its relevance and import across periods of development, gender, and individualist versus collectivist cultures.
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The issue of autonomy was originally imported into social psychology through the work of Fritz Heider and Richard deCharms. Heider argued that it is people’s “naive psychology” (their intuitive understanding) that determines how they interpret events and therefore how and why they act as they do. Among the most important dimensions within his naive psychology was Heider’s distinction between personal causation, in which behaviors are intended by their authors, and impersonal causation, in which actions or events are brought about by forces not in personal control. Heider reasoned that individuals usually hold people responsible only for behaviors that they personally caused or intended. Subsequently, deCharms elaborated on Heider’s thinking by distinguishing two types of personal causation. Some intentional acts are ones a person wants to do and for which he or she feels initiative and will. These are actions deCharms said have an internal perceived locus of causality. Other intentional behaviors are attributed to forces outside the self, and these have an external] perceived locus of causality.
Self-determination theory is a contemporary perspective that builds upon the Heider and deCharms tradition with a comprehensive theory of autonomy as it relates to motivation. Self-determination theory specifically defines autonomy as the self-determination of one’s behavior; autonomous action is behavior the actor stands behind and, if reflective, would endorse and value. That is, autonomy represents a sense of volition, or the feeling of doing something by one’s own decision or initiative. The opposite of autonomous action is controlled motivation, in which behavior is experienced as, brought about, or caused by forces that are alien or external to one’s self. Controlled actions are those a person does without a sense of volition or willingness.
Any behavior can be viewed as lying along a continuum ranging from less to more autonomy. The least autonomous behaviors are those that are motivated by externally imposed rewards and punishments. Externally regulated actions are dependent on the continued presence of outside pressure or reinforcements and thus, in most contexts, are poorly maintained. A student who does homework only because parents reward him or her for doing so is externally regulated but not very autonomous. When the rewards stop, the effort on homework may also fade. Somewhat less controlled are introjected regulations, in which a person’s behaviors are regulated by avoidance of shame and guilt and, on the positive side, by desires for self-and other-approval. When a teenager refrains from cheating because he or she would feel guilty, this would be introjected, because the teenager is controlling him- or herself with guilt. Still more autonomous are integrated regulations, in which the person consciously values his or her actions and finds them fitting with his or her other values and motives. A person who acts from a deeply held moral belief would be acting from an integrated regulation and would feel very autonomous. Finally, some behaviors are intrinsically motivated, which means they are inherently fun or enjoyable. A person who plays tennis after school just for fun is intrinsically motivated and would feel autonomous in doing it.
Several theorists in social and personality psychology have suggested that autonomy is a basic psychological need. This is because in general, when people behave autonomously, they feel better and perform better. Lack of autonomy makes people lose interest in their work and can even make them sick. Accordingly, factors that support autonomy can enhance not only the quality of motivation but also the individual’s overall adjustment.
Many studies demonstrate how social events can affect perceived autonomy and, in turn, people’s ongoing motivation. When parents, teachers, or bosses use rewards to control behavior, pressure people with evaluations, take away their choices, or closely watch over them, people typically feel controlled. Conversely, when authorities provide others more choice, allow them to express opinions and make inputs, and provide positive and noncritical feedback, they foster greater autonomy and enhance motivation and persistence.
The topic of how external rewards can affect people’s autonomy has been very extensively studied and is very controversial, because it is a very important issue in settings such as work, school, and family life. Studies show that when rewards are administered in a manner intended to control the behavior or performance of recipients, they typically undermine a sense of autonomy and thus diminish both interest and intrinsic motivation. Thus, a child who is learning to play a new musical instrument might become less interested after someone gives her a reward for playing. Now the child would only want to play if again rewarded, which means the child is less intrinsically motivated. However, rewards can also be used in non-controlling ways, such as when they are given unexpectedly or as an acknowledgement of competence; when given in this way, rewards usually do not under-mine autonomy.
As noted previously, autonomy is a concept that is often confused with independence. One simple way to distinguish these ideas is to think of independence as not relying on others for resources or supports, whereas autonomy concerns how volitional or self-determined one is. Thus, people can be autonomously or willingly dependent, as when they choose to rely on someone else for help. People can also be forced to rely on some-body else, in which case they would lack autonomy. Similarly, one can be heteronomously independent, as when forced to “go it alone,” or autonomously independent, as when one desires to do something by oneself, without getting help.
Distinguishing autonomy from independence is especially critical for developmental and cross-cultural studies. For example, research has suggested that adolescents who autonomously rely on parents tend to be better adjusted than those who are more detached or independent of parents. It is also clear that cultures differ greatly in values regarding independence, with individualist cultures placing greater value on people acting independently and collectivist cultures more focused on interdependence. Research suggests, however, that whether a person engages in individualist or collectivist practices, it still matters whether or not they feel autonomous. It appears that people in all cultures feel better when they are acting choicefully, even though what they normatively do may differ. This is why people around the world often fight for freedoms and the right to pursue what they truly value.
Similarly, autonomy is not associated with separateness. Separateness refers to a lack of connection with close others. People can be very autonomously connected with others, as when they love someone and want to be close to that person. Indeed, people are often very autonomous in trying to connect with and take care of people they love.
Another important distinction is between autonomy and free will. Free will, by most interpretations, involves some notion of an undetermined action, or action that is caused by a soul or self that is completely independent of an environment. Autonomy, in contrast, does not have these implications. Most social scientists believe that all behaviors have an impetus or cause either within the organism or its environment. But even if all actions are caused in this sense, they can still vary considerably in the degree to which they are volitional or autonomous.
Practical applications of research on autonomy can be found everywhere. Insofar as people who are acting autonomously are more persistent, perform better, and are more adjusted, it becomes important to identify factors in the real world that facilitate autonomy. Thus there has been a lot of research on how to support autonomy in domains such as education, sport, work, health care, and psychotherapy. Across domains, both the structure of incentives and supervision styles have been shown to influence autonomy and the positive outcomes associated with it.
Autonomy also is something that can be cultivated from within. Because autonomy concerns regulating behavior through the self, it is enhanced by a person’s capacity to reflect and evaluate his or her own actions. One can learn to engage in reflection that is free, relaxed, or interested, which can help one to avoid acting from impulse or from external or internal compulsion. Within self-determination theory, such reflective processing is characterized by the concepts of awareness and mindfulness. Greater mindfulness can help people be clearer about why they are acting as they are and can provide information that helps them subsequently act with more sense of choice and freedom.
- Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.
- Chirkov, V., Ryan, R. M., Kim, Y., & Kaplan, U. (2003). Differentiating autonomy from individualism and independence: A self-determination theory perspective on internalization of cultural orientations and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 97-110.
- deCharms, R. (1968). Personal causation. New York: Academic Press.
- Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social devel-opment and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
- Taylor, J. S. (2005). Personal autonomy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.