Your Brain at Work

Using neuroscience to improve daily life

A sense of autonomy is a primary reward or threat for the brain

Why employees (and your kids) sometimes lose the plot

This is the fourth in a series of five posts about the big drivers of threat and reward in the brain. So far I have posted about status, certainty and relatedness. This week let's explore the issue of autonomy. Autonomy is a feeling of having choices. This feeling turns out to be deeply upsetting when taken away from us.

Teen angst is not universal
According to Dr. Robert Epstein, teenagers in western cultures have fewer choices than a felon in prison. They can't drink, vote, have sex, marry, or choose where they go. I am not saying teens should be given total autonomy, they would probably make some pretty bad decisions. Yet I think some societies have gone overboard with control. (Note that the ‘terrible teens' is not a biological necessity, as many cultures don't experience this phenomenon.) In the US we have one of the older drinking ages worldwide - hundreds of countries allow drinking at 16 or 18. In Italy you can drink at any age. I was recently in a town square with 2,000 young people in Italy, at the University I teach at. There were live bands and dozens of bars in the square. In many countries this would be a recipe for violence, yet here I felt totally safe - people were controlling their drinking, yes even 17 year olds.

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A sense of autonomy is not a 'nice to have'
Autonomy is not just something that teens crave, a sense of autonomy is a big driver of reward or threat at all ages. Steve Maier at the university of Boulder says that the degree of control that organisms exert over something, determines whether or not the stressor alters an organism's functioning. His findings indicate that only uncontrollable stress cause damaging effects. Uncontrollable stress can be destructive, whereas the same stress that feels escapable is less destructive, significantly so. Steven Dworkin, at the University of North Carolina, studies the way rats are affected by drugs. In one study, a rat gives itself cocaine directly into the brain by pressing a lever. The rat eventually dies from lack of food and sleep. Yet when a second rat gets cocaine at the same time as the first, but not of its own volition, it dies much faster. The difference is a perception of control (or so scientists think, the rats don't say much.)

And there's more. A study of British Civil Servants found that low-level, non-smoking employees had more health problems than senior executives. This doesn't make sense intuitively, as senior executives experience a lot of stress. A perception of choice may be more important than diet and other factors for health. Many people report "work life balance" as the reason for starting their own business. Yet small business owners often work more hours, for less money, than in corporate life. The difference? Being able to make one's own choices. Another study found that the number of deaths was significantly reduced in a retirement home compared to a control group when people were given three additional choices about their environment.

Amy Arnsten studies the effects of limbic system arousal on prefrontal cortex functioning. She summarized the importance of a sense of control for the brain during an interview filmed at her lab at Yale. "The loss of prefrontal function only occurs when we feel out of control. It's the prefrontal cortex itself that is determining if we are in control or not. Even if we have the illusion that we are in control, our cognitive functions are preserved." This perception of being in control is a major driver of behavior.

Why a lack of autonomy may affect teens so much
With the teenage brain, small emotional hits can bring strong reactions. Prefrontal cortex functioning tends to shrink briefly as teens hit puberty: a ten year old may have better emotional control than a fifteen year old. Prefrontal functioning recovers in late teens and reaches an adult state only in the early twenties. (One theory for why the teen brain seems to go backwards for a while is that in the past, teenagers who did irrational things, like having children, passed on their genes more than people who exhibited self-control.) Because of their poor emotional regulation capacity, teens tend to feel threats and rewards intensely. Where an adult might feel slightly annoyed at being told what to do, but then regulate their emotions, a teenager does not have a well developed braking system, and emotions can get out of control. Perhaps this explains both the door-slamming arguments teens have with their parents, along with their influx into social justice projects.

The take away for parents? Find ways to allow kids, within reason, to feel that they have some kind of choice, even if it's minimal. 'My way or the highway' isn't really choice, and you can't be too flexible, but a middle ground is sometimes possible, and very helpful. One man told me he was having a terrible time with his teen daughter, who wouldn't do what he asked with her pocket money, and was always spending it without covering her cell phone bill. After thinking about this issue of autonomy, he tried out a new strategy: giving her permission to spend her money on anything she liked, as long as she paid the phone bill first. Their relationship dramatically improved from this one small change.

This idea of the importance of autonomy is easy to test on younger children. When a child won't go to bed, you might reduce their resistance by giving them back a choice. They can choose whether they are read a book or are told a story. This choice can have a big impact. It's the "perception" of choice that matters to the brain, as Arnsten explained.

Autonomy at work
In the workplace it's not always possible to give people a lot of autonomy: there are products to sell and processes to follow. The very act of going to work for a firm is an automatic reduction in autonomy - you don't have control over your time any more. (An ex monk, who now works in organizations, thinks the monastery is more free than the average company, at least there he could drink!) However with a little creativity you can give people the perception of autonomy. Instead of defining the exact process someone has to follow, try defining the end result really clearly, and outlining the boundaries of what behaviors are okay, then let people create within this frame. Autonomous decisions are decisions people will get behind.  The idea of workplace engagement has autonomy at the core. I wrote more about this in a recent paper called 'Managing with the Brain in Mind' published in a business journal.

A perception of reduced autonomy — for example, because of being micromanaged — can easily generate a threat response. When an employee experiences a lack of control, or agency, his or her perception of uncertainty is also aroused, further raising stress levels. By contrast, the perception of greater autonomy increases the feeling of certainty and reduces stress. Leaders who want to support their people’s need for autonomy must give them latitude to make choices, especially when they are part of a team or working with a supervisor.

The big take away from this: for yourself, find ways you can make choices, and stress is reduced. If all you can do is choose your response to an event, that can still be useful. And with influencing others, whether your employees or your kids, find ways that people can perceive they have choices, and they will be more likely to at least take action rather than look at you blankly, or worse, slam their bedroom door.

David Rock is executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting firm.

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