Burnout and the illusion of choice

I am up to the Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) chapter of Self-Determination Theory, which explores how autonomy, competence, and relatedness affect overall well-being. One aspect of well-being that BPNT explores is vitality — i.e. “the ability to harness psychological and physical energy to pursue valued activities.” BPNT proposes that aside from physical nutrients like sleep and food, our vitality is a function of the psychological nutrients of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. If you are in a controlling state — whether exercising your own self-control or experiencing someone else controlling you — your vitality will be depleted.

The chapter delves into an interesting 2006 study that was meant to explore how much autonomy affects vitality. It turns out quite a lot. They conducted an experiment where participants were given two sides of a controversy and told they would need to make a persuasive speech for one side. Participants were randomized into three groups:

True Choice: participants were simply asked to choose a side, with no pressure and no suggestion of either side being preferred

Compelled Choice: participants were told that they could pick either side, but, because lots of participants had already selected one side of the issue, it would be helpful if they could please choose the other.

No Choice: participants were assigned a side without being given a choice.

After making this choice, the “True Choice” participants were least depleted from the exertion of decision-making. But the “Compelled Choice” participants were the most depleted. That is, people had more energy and motivation when they were simply assigned a side without the illusion of choice, compared to when they were ostensibly free to decide, but receiving subtle pressure to decide a particular way.

The implication here, I think, is that you can’t cheat on autonomy support. When you are in a position of authority (parent, boss), if you have a strong preference for what a person should do, you should just assign it. I think I have a tendency to say things like, “Well, here are all the reasons I would choose X, but the final determination is up to you.” Based on that 2006 research, I think that’s not very helpful, and might be a way that people leaders unwittingly contribute to burnout amongst their staff.

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