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The Dangers of Freedom and Autonomy

The misuse of these reduces social empowerment.

Key points

  • Social empowerment depends on both social autonomy (i.e. the ability to choose one’s interactions) and social adaptability.
  • Some uses of social autonomy, such as avoiding all unfamiliar interactions, prevent social skill development and reduce social adaptability.
  • It is important to leave one’s social comfort zone occasionally to improve social adaptability and become socially empowered.
Source: cuncon/Pixabay

A recent paper by Wallace and McIntyre, published in the October issue of Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology, suggests social autonomy can have negative consequences. Specifically, “social autonomy undermines social adaptability by tempting people to avoid social challenges and socialize selectively with similar others in familiar contexts.” This habit “limits social skill development, promotes social intolerance, and distorts social perceptions.”

Before discussing the above claim, let me explain the importance of socialization and social autonomy.

Social Isolation and Loneliness vs. Socialization

A life of isolation and loneliness, one devoid of social interactions, is often a life that lacks pleasure and purpose. Many of our most meaningful and enjoyable experiences involve others: Going to parties, having a heart-to-heart with a friend, enjoying a sexual experience with a lover, spending quality time with the family, helping a stranger in need, etc.

Yet, some of our unhappy experiences, like disagreements and conflicts, also involve social interactions. Indeed, for a number of people, social interactions have caused significant harm. These individuals may have learned to associate socialization with constant invalidation and rejection, intense psychological manipulation, or physical and sexual abuse.

Thinking about such harms of socialization, it is tempting to choose social isolation over socialization. But what if we were given more freedom and autonomy in our social interactions? What if we could have greater control over the when, how, and who of our social interactions?

In fact, this is the direction our society is headed. For instance, using the internet, millions of us now have the freedom and autonomy to seek desired interactions with folks just like us around the globe. Similarly, we can avoid many unwanted daily interactions—e.g., instead of going to the bank or the mall, we can pay the bills and shop online.

This is good news since autonomy has been linked to many health benefits, as suggested by self-determination theory. However, it is not all good news. To understand why, we must understand the difference between three concepts discussed in the paper by McIntyre and Wallace: social autonomy, social adaptability, and social empowerment.

Social Autonomy, Social Adaptability, and Social Empowerment

  • Social autonomy refers to the ability to choose desired social partners or situations and avoid undesired ones. Social autonomy is higher in individuals with greater access to potential social partners and greater ability to control exposure to social situations.
  • Social adaptability refers to a person’s actual and perceived ability to function well and feel comfortable in different social contexts, including ones not of their choosing or under their control. Social adaptability is higher in those who are willing (and have the skills) to adjust to and tolerate challenging or unsatisfactory social circumstances.
  • Social empowerment depends on both social autonomy and social adaptability.

It is important to note that social adaptability and autonomy are independent of each other. In fact, increases in social autonomy may reduce social adaptability. This will be explained in the next section.

The Consequences of Social Autonomy

Greater freedom and social autonomy often result in increased interaction with similar others, such as those who share one’s interests, views, desires, goals, and experiences.

But increased social autonomy—and choosing comfortable and familiar social interactions—also results in more difficulties in adjusting to new, unexpected, or unpredictable social situations.

As the "Social Self-Restriction Model" suggests, people may use their autonomy in “ways that ultimately restrict their perceived and real ability to explore, appreciate, and benefit from the full range of viable social environments available to them.” See Figure 1.

Arash Emamzadeh (adapted from Wallace and McIntyre, 2021)
Source: Arash Emamzadeh (adapted from Wallace and McIntyre, 2021)

Of course, this does not mean exposure to just any difficult social situation is good for social adaptability. Repeated contact with a viciously racist group, for instance, may only cause psychological harm, not improve resilience or boost social adaptability skills. So, social avoidance is sometimes necessary. The goal should be to tolerate the discomfort or social anxiety of breaking through artificial social boundaries, not to thoughtlessly expose oneself to malice and harm.

So, if we choose to avoid all social challenges as a way to reduce our social anxiety and discomfort, we will lose our social adaptability and thus become socially disempowered. Specifically, social challenge avoidance will reduce social adaptability in the following ways:

  • Limiting the development/maintenance of social skills.
  • Increasing intolerance of and sensitivity to social discomfort, thus reducing resilience and the ability to cope successfully.
  • Encouraging the development of inaccurate perceptions of individuals outside one’s social safety zone.

Becoming Empowered

To sum up, freedom and autonomy have many mental health benefits. According to self-determination theory, autonomy is a universal need (along with competence and relatedness).

Nevertheless, when social autonomy is used to avoid all unfamiliar or unpleasant people or social interactions, it limits exposure to experiences that would allow the development of social skills. It prevents us from becoming socially competent and confident in a variety of social situations, thus reducing resilience and social adaptability, and ultimately making us less socially empowered.

For example, compared to those who socialize with diverse groups, those with limited social interactions are prone to:

  • respond negatively when encountering avoided or unfamiliar people.
  • notice differences rather than similarities.
  • have a negative perception of strangers (e.g., as homogeneous, untrustworthy, unfriendly).
  • develop a paranoid, us-vs-them worldview that complicates distinguishing unfamiliar (though potentially beneficial) interactions from truly dangerous ones.

So, what is the solution? Since personal freedom and social empowerment depend not just on social autonomy but also adaptability, the goal should be to maintain a balance.

On the one hand, we need to have the freedom to choose and the power to control our exposure to social interactions (e.g., to prevent exposure to dangerous people and abusive interactions). On the other hand, it is essential to work on developing social skills and social competence by learning to tolerate and cope successfully with challenging situations not of our choosing or not fully under our control.

This is the recipe for social empowerment.

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