Take Back Control – How to Support Autonomy

Take Back Control – How to Support Autonomy

26 May 2020 0 By Rhi Willmot

What is it?  A recent review on the impact of quarantine on our mental health indicates social isolation may prompt emotional difficulties such as depression, stress and anger1. However, the authors also suggest a number of factors can mitigate against these outcomes. In particular, supporting individuals’ sense of autonomy – or helping them to feel in control of their situation, can significantly improve wellbeing during lockdown.  

As a basic self-determined need, we all have the drive to exercise a sense of freedom and act according to our core desires and values2. The necessary constraints of lockdown make it much harder for individuals to fufill this need, potentially leading to negative behavioural responses. 

However, the type and manner in which information is communicated can make a considerable difference to the perception of autonomy. 

How to use it:  

  1. Don’t Fight the Feelings:  Welcoming the negative feelings of others rather than ignoring or suppressing them supports autonomy and promotes involvement3. Researchers suggest this process creates an open atmosphere from which further conversation can develop. As such, publicly acknowledging the negative aspects of lockdown can promote wellbeing and pave the way for behavioural change. 
  2. Present a Rationale: When people understand why a task is important, they are more likely to report and act with autonomy and engagement4. Rationales which communicate the personal importance of a behaviour are particularly effective5, and so should be sculpted to specific segments of the population.  
  3. Make it Concrete: Avoiding non-controlling language such as “you must” is an important aspect of autonomy support (see Messenger Part 2). However, information which is specific can also support autonomy when presented in a non-directive way. For example, compare “washing your hands removes germs which contaminate food, objects, other people and yourself” to “washing your hands is important”. The former, more concrete message supports autonomy because it is unambiguous and doesn’t require a great deal of inference6. It is more likely to be perceived as credible, important and trustworthy7


1.        Brooks, S. K. et al. The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence | Elsevier Enhanced Reader. Lancet 395, 912–20 (2020).

2.        Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Can. Psychol. Can. 49, 14–23 (2008).

3.        Reeve, J. & Jang, H. What teachers say and do to support students’ autonomy during a learning activity. Journal of Educational Psychology 98, 209–218 (2006).

4.        Reeve, J., Jang, H., Hardre, P. & Omura, M. Providing a rationale in an autonomy-supportive way as a strategy to motivate others during an uninteresting activity. Motiv. Emot. 26, 183–207 (2002).

5.        Assor, A., Kaplan, H. & Roth, G. Choice is good, but relevance is excellent: Autonomy‐enhancing and suppressing teacher behaviours predicting students’ engagement in schoolwork. Br. J. Educ. Psychol.72, 261–278 (2002).

6.        Miller, C. H., Lane, L. T., Deatrick, L. M., Young, A. M. & Potts, K. A. Psychological Reactance and Promotional Health Messages: The Effects of Controlling Language, Lexical Concreteness, and the Restoration of Freedom. Hum. Commun. Res. 33, 219–240 (2007).

7.        Miller, C. H. Persuasion and Psychological Reactance: The Effects of Explicit, High-Controlling Language. in The Exercise of Power in Communication: Devices, Reception and Reaction 269–286 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). doi:10.1057/9781137478382_11