[This is part two in a series on Self-Determination Theory – the idea that humans have three universal needs to achieve goals: competency, autonomy and relatedness. In part one, I give an overview of the theory and what I’m writing about over the next few weeks. It can be found here.]
What is Autonomy?
There is nothing mysterious about what autonomy means both literally and as a psychological concept. It is from the Greek words autós meaning “self” and nomos meaning “law”. Translated it means, quite simply, to govern oneself.
Its meaning as a psychological concept is not so different. Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan – the authors of Self-Determination Theory – define autonomy as the ability to make meaningful choices based on intrinsic motivation. In other words, making choices for yourself based on your needs and your goals.
What’s notably absent from both the literal and conceptual definitions? Other people and other things and this is how popular culture muddies the waters.
Popular cultural conflates autonomy with the need for power. Specifically, the idea of the more power we have – particularly power over others – the better our choices.
I’m not going to tell you that this definition is entirely wrong because it’s not without validity. After all, throughout all of human history those with the most power and resources stood the best chance of survival. Thus, the desire for and admiration of power is neither surprising nor irrational.
Therefore, we have to evaluate these two approaches – Deci’s and Ryan’s intrinsically-motivated autonomy vs popular culture’s extrinsically-motivated need for power – by asking what will ultimately lead us to becoming the best versions of ourselves?
To answer this question, first you must ask: do I want to be a Voldemort or a Neville Longbottom?
Order Six Things From Taco Bell and I’ll Tell You How Autonomous you Are
If I could distill a misunderstood psychological concept into a Buzzfeed quiz, the concept of autonomy would be “Are you a Voldemort or a Neville Longbottom?” And before you answer, “Ew. Neither.” hear me out.
It would be an understatement to say Voldemort has a need for power. I mean, he cut up his soul like a paper doll to become immortal because being super powerful wasn’t enough. It’s safe to say he has zero chill about this.
And even though we’re supposed think he’s a real stinker, objectively speaking, Voldemort’s approach to accomplishing his goals is not with its merits.
He is able to amass an army of toadies willing to do his bidding, few others rival his magical abilities and he damn near gets everything he wants. When was the last time any of us could say the same?
Unfortunately, he ran into the same problems mere mortals do when they rely solely on extrinsic motivation to achieve fulfillment: Hedonic Adaptation.
What Voldemort and Lottery Winners Have in Common
Study after study has replicated the conclusion that relying on extrinsic motivation does not work in the long run. The reason is Hedonic Adaptation. This is the tendency for humans to quickly return to a stable state of happiness despite major positive or negative life events.
It’s a phenomenon most dramatically observed in a 1978 study comparing the happiness levels of two unique groups of people – recent lottery winners who had won at least $50,000 and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic.
Both groups were asked to rate their past and present happiness, the level of happiness they anticipated for themselves in the future, and how much happiness they derived from everyday activities such as talking with a friend or hearing a funny joke.
While lottery winners reported slightly higher present happiness, that was about it. The accident victims had fonder memories of their past, were more likely than lottery winners to anticipate a happier future and took greater pleasure in everyday activities.
The conclusion: victims of catastrophic accidents were quantitatively happier than lottery winners. Lottery winners needed yet another reward to make them happier. By contrast, the accident victims had an internal motivation to work toward improving their situation.
The same holds true if, like Voldemort, you believe power over others is essential to achieving your goals. Punishing or rewarding people for doing something inhibits their intrinsic desire to complete the task on their own. Eventually, no reward or punishment is great enough to compel them.
So, in the very end, when the Death Eaters realized that Voldemort had neglected to double tap Harry Potter, there was no personal investment in what happened next nor was there a reward or punishment compelling enough to stay. Thus, they noped out of there post haste and, without his crew of flunkies, Voldemort and his ambitions were toast.
Neville Longbottom is the real hero of Harry Potter. Fight me.
In contrast, Neville Longbottom is an example of intrinsically-motivated autonomy.
You might be wondering why I don’t compare Voldemort to someone like Harry, Hermione or, God forbid, Ron. It’s because, unlike them, Neville never has greatness, favor nor even mere expectation thrust upon him. His peers and adults alike consistently underestimate him. He never has a mentor pulling for him or bending the rules so he can succeed or offering him special tools to help him do the impossible. In short, most of can relate a lot more to being Neville than we can to other three.
So, how exactly is Neville’s character arc an example of autonomy?
Autonomy is the ability to make meaningful choices and that is all Neville is ever equipped with. Though terrified, he chooses to join Dumbledore’s Army anyway. He has little natural aptitude for defensive magic so he chooses to practice. Finally, he chooses to stay at Hogwarts, keeping the Army going even after most have cut bait and everything goes to hell.
No other character shows the same level of personal growth as Neville. I’m not alone in thinking this.
The choices he makes and the subsequent character he cultivates enables him – not Harry – to be the one able to defeat Voldemort by destroying the final horcrux, Nagini.
Neville never aspired to greatness, but nevertheless achieved it. To quote Dumbledore, the character of Neville Longbottom and, likewise, the concept of autonomy demonstrate that, “it’s our choices that show what we truly are far more than our abilities.”
Autonomy is a drug your brain can’t quit
More importantly, science backs Dumbledore up on this one. Intrinsically-motivated autonomy shifts attention away from outcomes and toward the choices that will lead to achieving the outcome. In other words, the final goal matters less than the steps along the way. Each step becomes its own small challenge.
This approach works because of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s often referred to as one of “feel-good” chemicals of the brain and the thing that gets blamed for the fact that we can’t stop looking at our phones. Dopamine is so much more than that though.
Regarding motivation, when the brain is presented with a challenge, dopamine controls the ability to concentrate on a task. Furthermore, dopamine rises again when we complete the task. Thus, it enables us to not only to envision the rewards of our work, but to take action to move toward them.
Because autonomy frames tasks as a series of meaningful choices or small goals, our brains reward us with dopamine not once but twice. Flooding us with feelings of well-being and accomplishment, dopamine encourages repetition of the process. This creates a positive feedback loop and a momentum not found with the focus on external motivators.
Is This The Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?
And while it’s just super for a fictional character to be self-actualized, a historic example is a bit more useful.
I would suggest that Abraham Lincoln is a real-life Neville Longbottom.
Think about it. He was repeatedly described as shy and awkward even by people who loved him. Newspaper editor Ellis Henry Roberts REVERED Lincoln, but nevertheless wrote in 1860, “After you have been five minutes in his company you cease to think that he is either homely or awkward.” Uh, thank you?
His background was both ordinary and tragic. He failed. A lot. With each failure, he made the choice to move forward, to cope, and to cultivate his character. Furthermore, it’s important to note he did this without the benefit of knowing, as we do, how things would work out for him.
He was underestimated by everyone. His foes regarded him as a country bumpkin unfit for the mantle of President. His own family thought his depression was actually laziness. And even his friends thought he was kind of peculiar because of the way his mixed humor with melancholy.
He never sought greatness, but in one of the darkest hours of United States history, his quiet, humble and hard-won competence saved a country from destroying itself. He is not only rightly revered for it today, we long for a return of such leadership.
When it comes to real-life Voldemorts, there’s no shortage. Take your pick – Andrew Jackson, Stalin, Pol Pot and so many others. They have their infamy, but their legacies are certainly not defined by what they achieved nor even by what they destroyed. Ultimately, their legacies have nothing to do with them. Rather, they are defined by those who were lost, those who survived and those who fought back.
Cool. But I Just Want To Start Doing Yoga. How Does Autonomy Work For Me?
I admit the examples I’ve been using are pretty dramatic. What does this stuff mean when you just want to, I dunno, start cooking more meals at home or learn a new language?
It means the scientific evidence is in favor of Deci’s and Ryan’s theory that intrinsically-motivated autonomy is the better approach to achieving goals. This is true whether it is as simple as getting into the habit of reading more books or as lofty as attaining fulfillment. It all comes down to the same thing – making meaningful choices.
So what’s a meaningful choice? It’s any choice that propels you toward a goal. As a result, it is often “not pleasurable to make and indeed may come at a cost.” Sounds like fun, right? I know, but this where our buddy dopamine comes in.
As previously mentioned, each choice represents both a challenge and goal. By making choices and subsequently achieving these small goals, your brain gets a double shot of dopamine. This compensates for whatever cost was involved in making the choice initially.
Next, ask yourself “Where am I now?” and “Where do I want to be?” This will help you visualize the steps between these two points and begin to understand the choices you will have to make to get to the end.
Finally, concentrate on only one step and choice at a time. For example, you might want to make a habit of going to the gym every morning. Rather than focusing on that, put your effort toward setting the alarm clock so you wake up on time, packing your gym bag so it’s ready to go, setting out your workout clothes the night before and so on. By making these small, meaningful choices, you’ve given yourself the momentum to achieve the goal.
Did you feel that? Boom. You just experienced autonomy.
That’s all there is to it. For all of the fancy psychological jargon and talk of neurotransmitters, autonomy is really just about acknowledging that you have control over the choices you make and that even the smallest choices are meaningful in the long-run.