Autonomy in Psychology—What It Means and How to Be More Autonomous

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Autonomy involves making independent decisions that align with personal values and goals instead of being coerced by external forces. In psychology, autonomy is viewed as a fundamental human need. It is essential to individual well-being, motivation, and psychological health.

Autonomous behavior is often studied in the context of self-determination theory. According to this theory, people have innate psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When these needs are fulfilled, people experience greater intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, and subjective well-being.

This independence is vital in many ways. People who can engage in autonomous behavior are more likely to perform well at work, achieve their academic goals, and feel happier in general. On the other hand, feeling like others are in control of your destiny is more likely to contribute to problems such as poor self-esteem, a sense of helplessness, and worse mental health.

When people experience autonomy, they have a sense of psychological freedom, control, and choice. Instead of feeling as if outside forces direct behaviors, it allows people to feel that they have a sense of power and control over their own destiny.

Autonomy and Self-Determination

Self-determination theory is a theory of human motivation that suggests people have three basic needs in order to achieve optimal psychological well-being.

  1. Autonomy: Self-determination theory suggests that autonomy is more than just being independent. Instead, it is an innate sense of freedom that allows people to act on their own behalf to take charge of their destiny.
  2. Relatedness: In addition to autonomy, people also need connection. They want to relate and care for others and feel a sense of belongingness. 
  3. Competence: People also feel a need to have control over their environment and to feel that their actions will have an impact on the world around them.

To feel autonomous, people must feel that their preferences, behaviors, needs, and motivation are aligned. This allows people to then feel that they are living their lives according to their own direction and interests.

The theory also suggests there are two primary forms of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Where extrinsic motivation is focused on driving behavior through rewards and punishments, intrinsic motivation arises from within. People engage in behaviors simply for the joy and satisfaction of doing them. 

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can play a part in autonomous behavior. However, people are more likely to feel independent and in control when driven by internal desires rather than external rewards.

Examples of Autonomous Behavior

Taking steps to pursue personal goals is an example of autonomous behavior. This might include pursuing a hobby that interests you, taking classes that help you toward your educational goals, or learning about a new subject because you find the topic fascinating.

Other examples of autonomous behaviors include:

  • Setting boundaries in a relationship to protect your values
  • Getting up early each morning to go for a run because you enjoy doing it
  • Signing up for a community softball team because you enjoy playing
  • Making decisions about things you want by researching your options

In each case, you engage in a behavior because you feel intrinsically motivated and not because you are being told to do so by an external force.

What Makes a Person Autonomous?

Autonomy stems from a variety of sources, and many factors can contribute to how free and in control people act and feel. Early childhood experiences, parenting styles, and other aspects of a person’s upbringing can play a significant part in autonomous behavior later in life. 

One influential developmental theory suggests that children develop feelings of autonomy between the ages of 18 months and three years. During this time, kids begin to make choices such as picking their own clothes, developing food preferences, and choosing the toys they want to play with.

Kids that are encouraged and supported are more likely to emerge from this stage with a sense of autonomy. Those prevented from making choices or shamed for their choices are more likely to leave this stage with self-doubt and a lack of independence.

A few other factors include:

  • Self-awareness: In order to engage in autonomous behavior, being aware of your emotions, wants, needs, and thoughts is essential. People with a stronger sense of self-awareness tend to be more independent and make decisions based on their intrinsic desires rather than outside influences.
  • Locus of control: Locus of control refers to a person's belief in whether they are in charge of their destiny vs. whether they think their fate is largely out of their control. People with a strong internal locus of control are more likely to feel that their actions will lead to progress and change, which means they are more likely to have a strong sense of autonomy.
  • Self-efficacy: Self-efficacy refers to a person's belief in their ability to succeed in a specific situation. Feeling capable can play an essential part in autonomous behavior. You are more likely to act independently if you believe you possess the skills, knowledge, and resources to succeed.
  • Social support: Supportive environments also play a critical role in developing autonomy. If you have the support of family, friends, community, and society, you'll have the encouragement you need to pursue your own intrinsically motivated goals.
  • Level of freedom: Of course, the ability to act autonomously is influenced by the amount of freedom that people have to behave independently. This means you feel free to make decisions without being pressured and coerced or fearing punishment for your choices.

Autonomy is something that people can possess in varying amounts. Some people may be highly independent, while others lie somewhere else on the continuum. Levels of autonomous behavior can also vary depending on other factors, including the characteristics of the situation, changing goals, and a person's specific circumstances.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

While autonomy is also a human need, it is also a cultural construct. Research suggests that people are socialized toward autonomy from infancy and that cultural definitions can differ. Individualistic cultures stress the importance of autonomy, fostering the idea that an individual's desires, feelings, and goals are paramount.

On the other hand, collectivist cultures are more likely to view autonomy as an action that can support community-oriented goals and responsibilities.

Why Autonomy Is Important

Autonomy can be important in motivation, well-being, and overall life satisfaction. When people feel that they are free to make choices and have control over their lives, they are more likely to experience:

  • Authenticity: Autonomous people feel they are living authentically according to who they truly are. Instead of having their choices dictated by others or by circumstances, they are able to live according to their values and interests. 
  • Personal development: By exercising their own judgment, autonomy allows people to grow and learn more about themselves, their interests, and their beliefs. Because autonomous living requires people to take responsibility for their own choices, it also contributes to learning and growth.
  • Creativity: Feeling free to pursue your interests and passions can fuel innovation and creative thinking. When people have the freedom in how they choose to perform work, they feel less pressure to conform to certain strategies when solving problems. This can lead to out-of-the-box thinking and give people greater pride and ownership as they work.
  • Motivation: Autonomy can also help people feel more motivated to work toward goals and engage in the process. This can lead to greater satisfaction in areas including work and school and greater productivity and achievement. 

Autonomy can also be affected by factors such as mental illness,medical conditions, disability, and age. Older adults, for example, often experience decreased autonomy due to declining health and a greater need for assistance.

Maintaining autonomy as people age can help promote longevity and better self-rated health. It is also associated with a decreased risk for depression and cognitive decline as people age.

Consequences of a Lack of Autonomy

A lack of autonomy can take a serious toll on an individual's well-being. When people lack autonomy, they feel that how they feel, think, and behave is controlled by external factors. They feel that they can't live according to their wishes and may make choices based on a need to please others or out of fear of negative consequences. 

This lack of autonomy can lead to a variety of problems, including:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Lower life satisfaction
  • Disengagement and apathy
  • Feelings of cynicism
  • Greater stress 
  • Burnout
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Lower creativity
  • Guilt or fear
  • Anger or resentment
  • Lack of a sense of purpose or meaning
  • Feelings of mistrust

How to Be More Autonomous in Life

The events of childhood and adolescence often influence your sense of autonomy, but there are also things that you can do to improve your autonomy now:

  • Build self-efficacy: Pay attention to your thinking about your abilities to succeed in different situations. If you feel ineffective or incapable, consider strategies to help you feel more capable. This might involve using affirmations to boost your self-belief or seeking mentors who can provide encouragement and convey knowledge.
  • Practice new skills and competence: Learning new things and building your abilities can also help you feel more capable of succeeding in different situations. When you feel better about your ability to perform well, you are more likely to engage in independent, autonomous behavior.
  • Recognize your worth: Valuing yourself and your opinions is a core component of autonomy. Take steps to foster positive self-esteem by treating yourself with compassion and appreciating your talents. You're more likely to act autonomously when you feel that your perspectives and contributions matter.
  • Build supportive relationships: Invest in relationships with people who help support your independence. These people encourage you to try things, will help when they are needed, and will enthusiastically celebrate your achievements.
  • Practice authenticity: Being true to yourself can play an important role in fostering greater autonomy. Take steps to learn more about yourself, including your beliefs, values, interests, and dislikes.


Autonomy is a vital human need that involves acting independently and making choices aligned with your own needs and goals. When you feel more autonomous, you are more likely to feel empowered and in control of your own life. If you are struggling with a lack of autonomy, taking steps to improve your self-worth and seeking encouragement from supportive people can help.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."