Upward spiral between autonomy support and autonomous motivation

Research in self-determination theory has shown that individuals who are autonomously motivated make more progress and feel better. Research has also shown that autonomy support by parents, teachers or supervisors increases the autonomous motivation of children, students and employees respectively. That sounds logical and simple. But there is a little more to the interplay between these variables. New research by Levine et al. (2020) shows that an upward spiral occurs between autonomous motivation and autonomy support.

Autonomous motivation promotes progress

We are autonomously motivated when we work on achieving goals that we find meaningful or important and / or on activities that we find fun or interesting. If we are autonomously motivated, we are fully endorsing what we do (because we find it important or enjoyable). Research has shown that we make more progress as we are more autonomously motivated (see eg Koestner et al., 2008 and Gorin et al., 2014) and that we feel better (see eg Koestner et al, 2002). 

Autonomy support promotes autonomous motivation 

Much research has shown that an autonomy-supporting environment is beneficial for the development of autonomous motivation (see, among others, Su & Reeve, 2011 or Vansteenkiste et al., 2012). Within such an autonomy-supporting context, parents, teachers or supervisors take the perspective of children, students or employees seriously and give them options. 

Does autonomous motivation promote autonomy support? 

Much research to date is cross-sectional in nature. We therefore know that autonomy support and autonomous motivation are interrelated, but we do not know how these two variables influence each other. Levine et al. wondered whether the relationship between autonomy support and autonomous motivation might be reciprocal. In other words: could it be the case that being autonomously motivated also increases (the experience of) autonomy support? 

Longitudinal study: upward spiral 

They conducted a longitudinal study over one year of study among university students (N = 1544). At 5 measurement moments, the students completed questionnaires about motivation, autonomy support, progress and affect. 

They discovered a dynamic reciprocal relationship between autonomous motivation and autonomy support. At each subsequent time point, autonomy support led to increased autonomy motivation, and autonomous motivation led to increased autonomy support. Previously, there was an upward spiral of autonomous motivation and autonomy support. This also resulted in more positive affect and progress during the academic year. 

How does autonomous motivation lead to autonomy support? 

It is not known exactly how autonomous motivation leads to a greater experience of autonomy support. The authors mention two possibilities, I propose a third.

  • The first is that students who are autonomously motivated actively seek out situations where their autonomy is supported. This seems to me to be a credible statement of which I think I have seen an example in practice. 
  • A second explanation is that autonomously motivated students may themselves evoke more autonomy support in their teachers. This also seems to me to be a credible explanation. For example, it could be that autonomously motivated students actively ask for autonomy support. It may also be the case that a teacher has the feeling that he / she can give these students autonomy in an autonomously motivated student. 
  • A third possibility could be that autonomously motivated students are more sensitive to autonomy support and thus recognize it more easily when it is offered. Perhaps they are more likely to interpret what the teacher is doing as supporting autonomy.