Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How important is autonomy?

I noted earlier (here) that Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl argue that human flourishing is inherently a self-directed process because “there are no a priori, universal rules that dictate the proper weighting of the goods and virtues of human flourishing”.

The question I want to consider now is what evidence we have that people actually want to self-organize and flourish. How do we know that people would not prefer to have governments keep them in a state of perpetual childhood?

Research by psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan suggests that human flourishing depends on the extent that people satisfy basic psychological needs including autonomy, competence and relatedness. (For references to this research see ‘The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior’). Autonomy relates to “the experience of integration and freedom” and the desire “to self-organize experience and behavior”. Competence involves “achieving valued outcomes” and relatedness refers to “the desire to feel connected to others” (p 231).

Studies have shown that satisfaction of needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness has a positive effect on self esteem and general health. Contrary to claims that autonomy and relatedness are competitive, Deci and Ryan argue that it is in people’s natures to develop greater relatedness as they develop greater autonomy. Research results support the view that being more autonomous is associated with more positive and satisfying personal relationships.

Researchers have also observed that even when people are engaged in tasks that they find intrinsically interesting, their degree of involvement and commitment depends on the experience of autonomy and competence. When rewards are introduced for an intrinsically interesting activity people may feel less autonomy – they don’t feel that their behaviour is self-determined - and thus they display less intrinsic motivation. Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, who are economists, suggest that “the effect of external motivation on internal motivation depends on the perception of the people involved – of the outside motivation is perceived to be supporting, the intrinsic motivation tends to be reinforced (“Happiness and Economics”, 2002, p 182).

It seems to me that the findings of Deci and Ryan line up with observed market behaviour. People are always making trade-offs between different goals. Most people are prepared to sacrifice a lot of their autonomy in exchange for money when this is necessary in order to meet their basic physiological needs. When those needs have been met, however, people tend to give their need for autonomy much higher priority. People often forgo promotions or require large increases in incomes to induce them to accept additional responsibility at work. Some are willing to make sacrifices in incomes in order to achieve greater autonomy. For example, many people retire early in order to satisfy a need for autonomy by pursuing leisure activities that they find intrinsically interesting.

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