The Autonomy bias is part of the Self-determination theory, studied by Deci (1971) and Ryan (2008), which explores the degree to which an individual’s behaviour is self-motivated. Autonomy bias is our universal and innate need to be agents of our own lives. We have a need to make our own choices and to have the ability to implement these choices by our own free will. This may include deciding what we do, how we do it, when we do it and where we do it. A high level of perceived autonomy comes with feelings of certainty, reduced stress and a high level of ‘intrinsic motivation’. This increases the likelihood of persistent behaviour. We especially don’t like to feel coerced: it undermines this intrinsic motivation and we become less interested in doing something.
Studies have shown that restrictions on our autonomy lead to dissatisfaction. For example, one study revealed that the greatest source of dissatisfaction amongst doctors wasn’t having to deal with insurance companies or the piles of paperwork but instead a lack of control over their daily schedules. Studies also show that even altruistic actions (normally shown to increase positivity and well-being) will fail to produce these positive feelings when they’re coerced.
Autonomy bias has applications in management and marketing as a tool for motivating employees or customers to get the best response and engagement from them by knowing when and how best to award them autonomy.