The Power of Autonomy

Posted on January 18, 2012

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From everything I’ve experienced, research I’ve read, etc. autonomy is a really important part of motivation.

Basically you’re much more likely to do something well when you want to do it vs. being told to do it.

(if you’re interested in more thoughts on motivation and autonomy then this is a fun video to watch: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us)

Over the weekend I was listening to a RadioLab podcast (highly recommend all of their shows) called The Bad Show.

They were talking about what leads us to bad behavior (criminal behavior, being a jerk, etc) and discussed a study that was done many years ago where a scientist asked people to shock someone when that person got an answer wrong. They couldn’t see the person, but they could hear them cry out and, as the shocks got worse, it sounded like the person being shocked was literally dying.

The researchers were surprised to see that many people were willing to shock the other person past the point where the person might be killed.

They used their research to try and explain how Nazi Germany happened. How could so many people behave so badly? Their research made it clear that many people would fall victim to the same behavior as the Nazis under the right environment.

A lot of people know about that study, but what they don’t know and what RadioLab went in to was that every single one of the participants in the study stopped shocking people as soon as the researchers started ordering them to shock the other person.

That’s right, as soon as a participant was ordered to shock they immediately refused and ended their participation in the study.

It turns out that most of the participants were never actually ordered to shock anyone, they were encouraged and told that it was very important to science, but they were never ordered. These people would continue to shock the other person long past the point where the other person seemed to have died. As soon as the researchers told the person doing the shocking that they “had no choice but to continue”, though, every single participant stopped.

For me this demonstrates the power of autonomy. Under the right circumstances people are capable of doing potentially horrific things (they thought they were doing something good in the name of science), but as soon as you remove their autonomy, simply by telling them they have no other choice, then they will immediately fight back.

Despite this fact so many schools and workplaces continue to rely on orders to get things done. Students must constantly follow the orders of the teacher, with threat of punishment to prevent them from acting out of line. If we simply created an environment that felt autonomous (it’s easy to give people a sense of autonomy by simply giving them a few choices to choose from) then student motivation would increase dramatically.

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Posted in: General, Motivation