The Power of Choice: Why Autonomy Is the Most Effective Motivator

If people feel that their freedom is being infringed on, there is little doubt they will dig their heels in even harder.

By Sunday 27 Mar 2022Finance and BusinessReading Time: 5 minutes

By: Michael McQueen

More than any other point in history, our era idolises the individual. Especially in the West, our ideals, advertising and algorithms place the individual at centre stage of their own lives. Laws, instructions and requests that once would have been seen as serving the greater good are now likely to be interpreted as fundamental threats to freedom and autonomy.

As current as this individualistic trend may seem, resistance to coercion is a human instinct that is far older than selfies and targeted advertising. This instinct was studied in the 1960s by Jack and Sharon Brehm who first coined the term ‘reactance’. This referred to exactly that human behaviour of resisting pressure: the harder someone pushes us to do something, the harder we will push back. Threats of punishment or dangled rewards matter little.[1]

Social scientists James Price Dillard and Lijiang Shen conducted an interesting experiment in 2005 which underscored just how pervasive reactance can be. In the study, Dillard and Shen divided participants into two groups and gave each group a message about the benefits of flossing regularly. The details and data quoted in each message was identical, but the wording used differed slightly.

The first group received what was described as a ‘low threat’ message:

Most people would agree that flossing is worthy of serious consideration— gum disease can lead to other severe problems: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, pneumonia, [which] means that you might want to think about flossing a regular habit. If you floss already, keep up the good work. And if you haven’t, now might be a good time to start. In fact, you may want to try it today. It’s easy, why not give it a try? Set a goal to floss every day for the next week, starting today.

In contrast, the second group received a ‘high threat’ version of the same message:

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Any sensible person can see that there is really no choice it comes to flossing. You simply have to do it… And the fact that gum disease an become the basis for other severe problems such as stroke and pneumonia makes it just stupid not to floss every single day of your life. So, if you floss already, don’t stop even for a day. And if you haven’t been flossing, right now is the time to start: today. Do it because you have to. Floss every single day. Set a goal for yourself to floss every day for the next week. Starting today.

What became quickly apparent was that the students who received the lower threat message were significantly more willing and likely to floss than those in the second group. The key difference was the sense of being forced or compelled to do something – the sense that you had to do it.

In assessing Dillard and Shen’s findings, one psychologist put it this way: “Shouldn’t a rational person respond to the content rather than the threat level of the message? After all, everyone agrees that flossing is a good idea, and learning about consequences as dire as pneumonia and stroke should strike fear into heart of even the most careless person. But in fact, the effective message was the one that stressed the students’ autonomy… More important than avoiding pneumonia or stroke, apparently, is feeling that we are in charge of our own destinies.”[2]

The reality is that autonomy is not only critical to avoid the reactance trap but it is also essential for motivation and commitment. When our egos and agency feel safe, it’s amazing what this unlocks. A digital road safety sign I saw recently above a freeway illustrated this point well. “Other people make mistakes,” it read, “Please slow down.” Unlike many similar signs that attempt to shame or scare drivers into keeping to the speed limit, this sign placed the responsibility for dangerous driving on others. My hunch is that drivers were far more likely to consider slowing down not because they were told to, but because they had it suggested to them in a way that didn’t attack their ego.

Especially in our era of intense individualism, these facts have serious implications for the way we sell our products, motivate our teams and ­­persuade other people. As easy as it is to raise our rhetoric and enforce our argument, there is nothing that does more damage to our persuasion. If people feel that their freedom is being infringed on, there is little doubt they will dig their heels in even harder.

The way to counter this is to offer choice. Framing requests in a way that emphasises the other’s freedom to do as they please is the most effective way to get them to do what you have asked. This is as simple as using words and phrases that highlight this freedom. Michael Pantalon offers a helpful collection of such phrases:

  • Please don’t feel obligated…
  • It’s completely your decision…
  • I think it’s a good idea, but that’s just me.
  • You’re free to do whatever you want.

One phrase that works almost every time is something I have labelled the fifteen-word autonomy frame. It begins with: “If you can’t do it, I’ll completely understand…”, and then after a brief pause, “If you can, I’d really appreciate it.”[3]

The reason this works is that it positions the request as one that preserves autonomy. The other person has the power to choose. It also highlights what the most helpful and generous choice could be which is a choice the other individual is more likely to make if they feel in control.

In an age of individualism, autonomy is among our highest priorities – we want to determine our destinies and protect our freedoms. In this context, knowing the power of choice is crucial for every leader or individual attempting to influence or persuade another. While pressure rarely results in anything other than someone digging their heels in, offering choice is a sure way to get them moving.


[1]  Pantalon, M 2011, Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything-Fast, Little, Brown Spark, New York, 25-30.

[2] Pantalon, M 2011, Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything-Fast, Little, Brown Spark, New York, 25-30.

[3] Burg, B 2011, The Art of Persuasion: Winning Without Intimidation, Sound Wisdom, Pennsylvania, 131.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash