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What Is Autonomy and Why Is It So Difficult to Achieve?

Autonomy is often a delusion of the inner-directed person.

Autonomy is the ability to make choices yourself rather than having them made for you by other people. Most of us desire autonomy—who wants to be a slave to another's wishes? But we are certainly not born fully autonomous. In early childhood, we are totally dependent upon our parents and must abide by their rules. In later childhood and adolescence, we experience and often give in to peer pressure. Even as full-grown adults we must deal with the expectations of both authorities in power and our friends and colleagues. Can we ever be truly autonomous, free to make our own choices?

In this post, I will explain why I think (1) that autonomy is a matter of degree, (2) that some people achieve more autonomy than others, but (3) that even the most autonomous among us actually have very little freedom as they make choices.

My thoughts on autonomy began with a three-phase model of moral development that I published in 1978 with coauthors Robert Hogan and Nicholas Emler. The basis for the model came from Émile Durkheim's book, La Educacion Moral ( Moral Education ), but the idea that we travel through three phases of development toward autonomy recurs often in psychology and related fields.

Durkheim said that in the first five years of childhood, we develop a sense of duty and discipline from our parents (or primary caretakers), who insist on nonnegotiable conformity to their expectations. In this first phase, children learn to regulate their impulses in order to please their parents, and this acquired ability to self-regulate helps people to pursue their goals within the boundaries set later by authorities and the rules and norms of society.

During the school years, children become more sensitive toward other's feelings and expectations because they crave belonging in a peer group where members care about each other's well-being. This acquired sensitivity toward the well-being of others in the second phase of development lays the foundation for mutual cooperation throughout the rest of life.

Finally, when we move from adolescence to adulthood, we must move beyond direct parental supervision and compulsory schooling to makes choices about our own career and family. In this third and longest phase, we are expected to take care of both ourselves and other people.

During each phase in my developmental model, there is a new problem to solve. The first problem for a developing child is to learn, as quickly and efficiently as possible, basic information needed to survive and thrive in the world. Children need to learn about dangerous situations and how to avoid them. They need to learn the difference between edible foods and poisons. Children cannot afford to question their caretakers on these issues, or they could literally die.

Granted, children differ in their responsiveness to parental directives. Some children are temperamentally more stubborn and resistant to learning. Parental childrearing techniques also affect learning. When children grow up in a stable, consistent, warm, loving environment, they are more likely to obey their parents and develop positive attitudes about rules and norms. Children who are neglected and treated harshly are more likely to become delinquents and criminals—if they even live that long.

Learning to live within the basic rules and norms of society is the challenge of the first phase of development. In the second phase of my model, the problem for the developing child is learning to interact cooperatively with others. Humans are a social species; we literally depend on collaborative interactions with others for our survival. Whether we are talking about the cooperative hunting and gathering of early humans or the complex interchanges among people playing highly specialized roles in industrial and post-industrial societies, we need to get along with others, including others who are quite different from us. This requires empathy—the ability to take the perspective of others.

As with the first phase, outcomes of the second phase depend on differences in temperament and quality of interactions with others. Children who are introverted, shy, or on the autism spectrum find it more difficult to engage with others. Acceptance and inclusion or rejection and bullying by others will also affect our sense of connectedness to others. The need for acceptance is strong, so adolescents often seek out like-minded peers who are more likely to accept them. Adolescent social crowds and cliques can form the basis of later adult vocational choices .

Now, here is the crucial point about experiences in childhood and autonomy as an adult. No matter how positive or negative your experiences with parents or peers, those experiences have a permanent influence on your adult personality. Furthermore, we normally remain unaware of most of these early influences, and that is precisely why we will have limited autonomy at best. If residues from your early experiences that remain outside of your awareness are influencing your current, conscious choices, then you are not completely free or autonomous. Rather, you are acting out unconscious scripts from your childhood.

I am not talking about the Freudian unconscious here. Rather, I am referring to a simple fact demonstrated by modern evolutionary, cognitive, and brain science, that most of our mental processing occurs below the level of consciousness . Split-brain research by Michael Gazzaniga indicates that our choices are not made by a conscious, unified self. Rather, different mental modules operating outside of awareness compete with each other for expression until decisions are made. Because the conscious self is not aware of this process, when we are asked why we made a particular choice, we invent what feels like a reasonable story to explain our behavior without realizing that we are engaging in self-deception. The process of making up such stories, which is something we all do, is called confabulation . In reality, it is nearly impossible to know how much of what we do is blind conformity to the expectations of parents or peers.

Various researchers have converged on personality typologies that classify us according to our degree of conformity to parents or peers. Sociologist David Riesman described people with a stronger connection to their parents' values than to peer expectations as "inner-directed." Interestingly, inner-directed persons feel autonomous because they easily resist peer influence and follow what is in their heart. What an inner-directed person does not realize is that what is in his or her heart is essentially a copy of his or her parents' values. In contrast, an "other-directed" person did not internalize his or her parents' values (perhaps because of permissive or neglectful parenting) and looks instead for guidance from his or her peers. Although an other-directed person more obviously lacks autonomy, this lack is no greater than that of the inner-directed person.

Researcher Jonathan Cheek describes an inner-directed person as someone with a strong personal identity and an other-directed person as someone with a strong social identity. Popular self-help writer Gretchen Rubin refers to an inner-directed person as a Questioner and an other-directed person as an Obliger. You can follow links to Cheek's Aspects of Identity Questionnaire or Rubin's Four Tendencies Quiz to see which type you might resemble.

Durkheim, Riesman, and I all agree that autonomy is not a rejection of traditional values imparted by our parents and society, nor is it a rejection of how our peers would like us to behave. Rather, autonomy, based on a conscious, scientific understanding of morality, is a respect for self-discipline and a devotion to others that leads us to freely choose what we see as necessary for optimizing the human condition (and possibly the well-being of all sentient creatures).


Hogan, R., Johnson, J. A., & Emler, N. P. (1978). A socioanalytic theory of moral development. In W. Damon (Ed.), New directions for child development: Vol. 2. Moral development (pp. 1-18). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. doi:10.1002/cd.23219780203