Approaches to assessing autonomy in behavior and self-report

  • "Autonomy is the condition under which what one does reflects who one is" (Weinrib, 2019, p.8). This quote encapsulates the core idea of autonomy, namely the correspondence of one’s inner values with one’s actions. This is a beautiful idea. After all, who wants their actions to be determined or controlled from the outside? The classical definition of autonomy is precisely about this independence from external circumstances, which Murray (1938) primarily coined. Among other things, Murray characterizes autonomy as resistance to influence and defiance of authority. Similarly, Piaget (1983) describes individuals as autonomous, independent of external influences, in their thinking and actions, and foremost, adult authority. Subsequent work criticized this equation of autonomy with separation or independence (Bekker, 1993; Chirkov et al., 2003; Hmel & Pincus, 2002). In lieu thereof, autonomy is defined as an ability (Chirkov, 2011; Rössler, 2017) and as an essential human need (Ryan & Deci, 2006). Focus is now on self-governing while relying on rationally determined values to pursue a happy life (Chirkov, 2011). According to Social Determination Theory (SDT), autonomy is about a sense of initiative and responsibility for one’s own actions. The experience of interest and appreciation can strengthen autonomy, whereas experiences of external control, e.g., through rewards or punishments, limit autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2020). In the psychological discourse of autonomy, SDT is strongly represented (Chirkov et al., 2003; Koestner & Losier, 1996; Weinstein et al., 2012). Notably, SDT distinguishes between autonomy and independence as follows. While a person can autonomously ask for help or rely on others, a person can also be involuntarily alone and independent. Interestingly, these definitions are again closer to its etymological meaning as self-governing, originating from Greek αυτòνoμζ (autonomous). The two strands of autonomy as independence and autonomy as self-determination are also reflected in the vital differentiation into reactive and reflective autonomy by Koestner and Losier (1996). Resisting external influence, particularly interpersonal in fluence, is what reactive autonomy entails. This interpretation is closely related to the classical concept of autonomy as separation and independence from others (Murray, 1938). On the other hand, reflective autonomy concerns intrapersonal processes, such as self-governing or self-regulation, as defined in Self-Determination Theory (Ryan et al., 2021). In this dissertation, we investigated the concept in three different approaches while focusing on its assessment and operationalization: To begin, in Article 1, we compared the layperson’s and the scientific perspective to each other to gain insight into the characteristics of autonomy. Then, in Articles 2 and 3, we experimentally tested behavioral autonomy as resistance to external influences. Simultaneously, we investigated the link between various autonomy trait measures and autonomous behavior. As a result, in Article 2, we looked at how people reacted to the effects of message framing and sender authority on social distancing behavior during the early COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, in Article 3 we investigated the resistance to a descriptive norm in answering factual questions, in the context of autonomous personality. In our first article, we used a semi-qualitative bottom-up approach to gain insights into the laypersons’ perspective on autonomy and compare it to the scientific notion. We followed a design proposed by Kraft-Todd and Rand (2019) on the term heroism. We derived five components from philosophical and psychological literature: dignity, independence from others, morality, self-awareness, and unconventionality. In three preregistered online studies, we compared these scientific components to the laypersons’ understanding of autonomy. In Study 1, participants (N = 222) listed at least three and up to ten examples of autonomous (self-determined) behaviors. Here, the participants named 807 meaningful examples, which we systematically categorized into 34 representative items for Study 2. Next, new participants (N = 114) rated these regarding their autonomy. Finally, we transferred the five highest-rated autonomy and the five lowest-rated autonomy items to Study 3 (N = 175). We asked participants to rate how strongly the items represented dignity, independence from others, morality, self-awareness, and unconventionality. We found all components to distinguish between high and low autonomy items but not for unconventionality. Thus, we conclude that laypersons’ view corresponds with the scientific characteristics of dignity, independence from others, self-awareness, and morality. A qualitative analysis of the examples also showed that both reactive and reflective definitions of autonomy are prevalent.

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Author:Elisabeth ZeyORCiDGND
Place of publication:Frankfurt
Referee:Sabine WindmannORCiDGND, Tilmann HabermasORCiDGND
Advisor:Sabine Windmann
Document Type:Doctoral Thesis
Date of Publication (online):2023/11/21
Date of first Publication:2023/11/06
Publishing Institution:Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg
Granting Institution:Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität
Date of final exam:2023/04/26
Release Date:2023/11/21
Page Number:136
Kumulative Dissertation - enthält die Verlagsversionen (Versions of Record) der folgenden Artikel:
Zey, Elli; Windmann, Sabine (2022): Grassroots Autonomy: A Laypersons' Perspective on Autonomy. Frontiers in Psychology 2022, Vol. 13 (7. April 2022), eISSN 1664-1078, DOI 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.871797

Zey, Elli; Windmann, Sabine (2021): Effects of Message Framing, Sender Authority, and Recipients' Self-Reported Trait Autonomy on Endorsement of Health and Safety Measures during the Early COVID-19 Pandemic. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2021, 18 (15), 7740, ISSN 1660-4601. DOI 10.3390/ijerph18157740

Eine Manuskriptversion des folgenden Artikels:
Zey, Elli; Schultze, Martin; Windmann, Sabine: Assessing Behavioral Autonomy in Resistance to Descriptive Norm Feedback. Openly available at the project's Open Science Framework page (
Institutes:Psychologie und Sportwissenschaften
Dewey Decimal Classification:1 Philosophie und Psychologie / 15 Psychologie / 150 Psychologie
Licence (German):License LogoCreative Commons - CC BY-NC-SA - Namensnennung - Nicht kommerziell - Weitergabe unter gleichen Bedingungen 4.0 International