Autonomy

I’m reading a book right now about habits– how and why they form and how to use them.  In it, the author cites a study in college students where they are put in a room with freshly baked cookies and told not to eat them for 5 minutes.  Then, they have to complete a willpower test.  There were two groups.  One was asked to please not eat the cookies and was treated kindly, with respect, and they were asked to share any ideas about how to improve the research.  The other was ordered to not eat the cookies, and that is all.

Neither group ate the cookies.  But the group who was ordered to eat the cookies performed much worse on the willpower test.  The researchers supposed it was because participants had a small degree of autonomy in the research.  When students were treated like machines, they didn’t do as well as when they were treated like humans.

Humans LOVE autonomy.  We HATE being told what to do.  This is one of the core tenets of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which I have discussed before.  Study after study has demonstrated that, when you take people’s autonomy away, they perform worse, and when you give them autonomy, they do better.

For example, one study had college students construct Erector sets.  One group was given a variety of options for approaching construction and the other was given very specific steps and goals to meet.  The group with the greater autonomy reported more interest, satisfaction, and persistence than the group with less autonomy.  This study was published over 40 years ago, and there have been hundreds confirming the results since then.  So why do we keep telling people- for The Vetducator context, students and veterinarians- what to do and how to do it and with whom to do it?  Why in the world don’t we embrace autonomy?  I have some ideas.

First, America has Puritanical underpinnings and the protestant work ethic pervades our culture.  I’m not a sociologist, but my impression is that these beliefs often focus around punishment and rewards, and doing what you are told to do.  Puritans have rules, and by gum we will follow them.

Second, restricting people’s autonomy and telling them what to do “makes sense”.  It’s assumed that those in positions of power are better, and therefore more able to dictate how to do a thing.  I’m the expert, or the teacher, so I know best, and you do what I tell you.

Third, it feels good.  Who doesn’t love ordering others around?  Have your every whim met?  There’s a reason slavery predates written history and was practiced in almost every ancient civilization; when people focus more on their individual interests than the collective good, it’s easy to fall into the habit of exerting your will over others’.

Fourth, restricting autonomy works… in certain circumstances.  On an assembly line, you want everyone doing their correct steps.  In the operating room, you want everyone following the checklist.  It reduces error and improves outcomes.  However, an important caveat is that the _best_ systems ALSO incorporate autonomy with strict rules.  For example, the ability to shut down an entire assembly line if a worker feels something is unsafe or not working.  Toyota used this to great effect when they embraced the principle of Kaizen.

Fifth, we tend to see things in black and white.  Humans love right and wrong, yes and no.  Total autonomy?  All chaos!  Total control?  Absolute smoothness!  But that’s not what giving autonomy is.  In the Toyota example, they still had to follow the rules, but just that little bit of extra autonomy made all the difference.  You don’t have to go whole hog, even a little more autonomy makes people feel more in control of their lives.

All right, so autonomy is awesome and we should do more of it, but humans are not great at embracing autonomy.  So what do we do about it?

Teachers – Give students as much choice as possible.  Let them choose from a variety of assignments.  Let them choose the topic to cover.  Let them decide who to work with (including only themselves!).  Give them choices for which questions to answer.  The ACVAA specialty written exam embraced this principle years ago- you had to answer 5 out of 8 essays.  Consider giving them the choice on when to submit assignments.  Wherever you can and it makes sense, give students choice.  I realize that all of this might read as “chaos”, but I assure you it can be done in a controlled manner which does not throw your entire semester into disarray.

Bosses – Allow employees to decide how to spend their time, what to work on, with whom, and how.  Maybe not all the time, probably not for every task.  For clinical faculty, someone has to be on clinic duty- we can’t all be off doing different fun research projects, but the faculty can decide who is going to cover that block.  Again, it’s not all or nothing.  Give credit for peer-reviewed publications regardless of the “impact factor” or “robustness” or if it’s medical or educational in focus.  This allows faculty to explore their interests, rather than feeling compelled to constantly pursue projects that will only get into high impact factor journals.  Let people set their own schedules and deadlines.  Wherever it’s not absolutely essential, do not impose rules.

Students – Unfortunately, you don’t get a lot of control over your own autonomy.  Sorry.  So, try to do what you can within the confines of the rules you have been given, and find autonomy wherever you can. Enjoy looking through and choosing electives. When sitting in a restrictive class, remember that you CHOSE to go to vet school.  Choose when to study, how, and with whom.  Recognize that you control when during the day and week you work on a project, even if it has a specific deadline.  On a group project, work with the others to choose roles most suited to each member.

Once you realize the importance of autonomy, you start to see everywhere- situations where people have autonomy and where they don’t.  You can see people who don’t have a lot of autonomy- they’re just going through the grind day to day, almost with a sense of hopelessness.  When you see people who have some autonomy, you see that they engage with their tasks in a more substantive way.  Having autonomy isn’t a panacea- there are still days that suck- but having some is better than having none.

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