Among the most important concerns of people across the globe are issues of freedom and control. Indeed, despite some horrific exceptions, the modern world is trending toward greater human rights, tolerance for diversity, and allowance for individual choices in vocations and lifestyles. Everywhere people fight against oppression and dictatorial controls, and groups that have been stigmatized struggle for equal rights and respect. At a more individual level, people move during their development toward greater self-regulation. They suffer under excessively controlling caregivers, teachers, clinicians, coaches, and bosses. In general, people are more likely to thrive and be positively engaged and motivated in settings where they are empowered and feel a sense of autonomy.
Although most laypeople grasp the import of these issues in everyday life, when I was a young clinical psychologist studying motivation, these topics – human freedom, people's capacities and needs for choice, and development toward increased self-direction and autonomy – were mostly treated as pseudo-phenomena, and were at best topics peripheral to mainstream empirical psychology. Some humanistic and psychodynamic psychologists had made such issues their central themes, but they were often not applying strong scientific methods to support their ideas.
Could it be right that people's concern with freedom and choice – and, oppositely, their feelings of alienation and frustration when overly controlled – are merely illusory issues? Could it be, as a famous cover of the American Psychologist once claimed, that human behavior is actually “involuntary”?
Despite the strong pull of clinical work, I was decidedly preoccupied with such questions during graduate school and was convinced, in part because of philosophical training, that psychologists had largely misconceptualized the issues in this area. I was also, in my everyday work in hospital and outpatient settings, confronted with the costs of compromised human autonomy, and I felt that understanding how autonomy and volition could be better supported could have implications in every applied field, from workplaces and schools to sport fields and psychotherapy clinics.
Thus, despite my initial plan to pursue full-time clinical practice, I began to research this topic, in part occasioned by my friendship and collaborations with Edward Deci, who also has a chapter in this volume (see Chapter 61).