March 14, 2024

Autonomy Motivates - If We Believe We Are in Control

A photograph of a pilots view of a planes dashboard with a hand toggling the dials and controls.

Autonomy Motivates - When We Are in Control

Autonomy in our MotivationMetrics model has two components, 1) the extent to which we have choice over what we do and how we do it, and 2) the degree to which we can be ourselves.

While the need to influence our work is well documented, we argue that the need for choice depends on the extent to which we believe we are in control, otherwise known as our people’s locus of control. Locus of control governs what we perceive determines the outcomes of events. When someone has an internal locus of control, they believe that their own behaviour has a significant bearing on the outcomes of events. They tend to be more likely to take responsibility for their actions, be less influenced by others, and feel confident with independence. Conversely, when someone has an external locus of control, they believe that they have little control over outcomes of events, rather they are determined by other people, chance, or fate. They tend to blame others for the circumstances, and to feel powerless when faced with challenges.

Our Study

We hypothesised that the extent to which our locus of control is internal or external has a bearing on how significant our need for choice is and how comfortable we are with choice. In a sample of 149 part- or full-time employed individuals living in the UK, we tested whether a perceived degree of autonomy, which includes both choice and self-actualisation, positively predicts life satisfaction and whether the relationship between the choice component of autonomy and life satisfaction is moderated by the locus of control.

It is relevant to mention that we found no significant differences in someone’s locus of control as a function of their age, gender, and employment status.

Among the 125 individuals who indicated an internal locus of control, life satisfaction was significantly predicted by both the choice component of autonomy and the self-actualisation component (p < .05).

LifeSatisfaction = 1.58 + .21 * Choice + .66 * SelfActualisation + ε

In contrast, among the 24 individuals who indicated an external locus of control, life satisfaction was significantly predicted only by the self-actualisation component of autonomy (p < .05) but not by the choice component (p = .158). These findings support our hypotheses that there is a positive relationship between self-actualisation and life satisfaction whereas the positive relationship between choice and life satisfaction is moderated by one’s locus of control (see Figure 1).
LifeSatisfaction = 4.28 + .63 * SelfActualisation + ε

Model of the multiple regression of life satisfaction on self-actualisation and choice, the latter of which is moderated by locus of control.
Figure 1: Model of Life Satisfaction predicted by self-actualisation and choice, the latter of which is moderated by locus of control.


These results show that self-actualisation is a universal need that is positively related to life satisfaction whereas choice only plays a pivotal role in determining life satisfaction among those who believe that their chosen behaviours can affect the outcomes of events. Among those who believe that external factors have a larger impact on the outcomes of events than themselves and therefore prefer not to make decisions, choice is in the best case non-beneficial to their overall life satisfaction and in the worst case detrimental.

Therefore, according to our MotivationMetrics model, self-actualisation is a universal need the fulfilment of which promotes life satisfaction and motivation. However, we cannot assume that providing choice is universally beneficial to life satisfaction and motivation. To optimise motivation and life satisfaction, organisations need to match the reality of their employees to their preferences and encourage and facilitate self-actualisation, so that everybody can thrive.



Ryan, R., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. According to Ryan and Deci’s (2000) Self-Determination Theory, autonomy is a fundamental condition for intrinsic motivation. Autonomy can be defined as the ability to make decisions oneself without the influence of external agents. When we have autonomy, we can act according to our values and interests. This means the more autonomy we have, the more we are satisfied with our life. But can we really say that everyone universally has a need for autonomy that requires fulfilment?

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