Why is controlled regulation so prevalent?

A training participant asked me recently: "Why is controlled regulation so popular when it is clear that an autonomy supportive way of working is so much more effective?" I'll try to answer this question below. Before I do, let me give you a brief summary of what controlled regulation and autonomy support mean. Much research into self-determination theory has shown that autonomous motivation has many advantages over controlled motivation. An autonomy-supportive way of parenting, teaching, coaching, or managing works much better than a controlled approach. The figure below (a translation from a picture from my Dutch book Kiezen voor progressie (2016) summarizes the differences between autonomous and controlled motivation and their different effects:

Knowing is doing

Back to the question: if autonomy support works so much better than controlled regulation, how come the latter is still so prevalent? I see two main reasons. One reason is that we often believe in what we are familiar with. In psychology this phenomenon is known as the mere-exposure effect. It means that we have a preference for things with which we have more experience. If, for example, we have been raised ourselves in a controlled way this increases the chance that we will also use such a style of parenting.We might call this first reason: knowing is doing. But this raises a new question: why were we raised in a controlled way in the first place? Why was this way of working ever popular?

We (mistakenly) think we can see it work

This has to do with the limitedness of our own perceptions and intuitions in matters of psychology. Controlled regulation may not work well in many ways but it does appear to work. The methods of controlled regulation, such as threatening, raising your voice, punishing, promising rewards, etc do affect behavior, and often quickly. A teacher who screams at his students will probably manage to silence them. That teacher may conclude that screaming works and is even necessary to silence students when they are noisy.

But appearances can be deceptive. Much more is happening when the students get silent. These other things which happen may be less easy to observe. For example, they may become scared of the teacher or start to dislike the teacher. The emotional state in which they may get is likely to impede their focus on the subject. Fear and anger doe not mix well with focused learning. Also, it is hard to be interested in a subject when you are fearful or angry.

Furthermore, with this approach, students will not internalize the importance of a quiet atmosphere in the classroom. They keep quiet because of the screaming, not because they want to learn and understand that this needs a certain amount of quiet. Finally, the act of screaming is likely to make the students feel that they can't be trusted. By screaming you imply that a quiet request for silence accompanied with the explanation of why that is needed will not work with them.

Not too long ago a teacher who applies autonomy support in her classes told me that a student asked her in surprised tone of voice: "Ma'am, why are you not screaming at us? Everybody is always screams at us."


Controlled regulation appears to work when we are mainly looking at immediate and superficial effects. The negative side effects which happen are harder to see but very important. Through scientific research we can get a clearer picture of the psychological effects of punishment, rewards, screaming, etc. And that picture doesn't look good.