Motivation and emotion/Book/2023/Freedom and motivation

Freedom and motivation:
What is the effect of freedom on motivation?



Case study 1:

Three people are each given a scenario varying in freedom of choice:

  1. Person one: A teacher supplies them with 500 essay questions to write about;
  2. Person two: The teacher does not give them an option to choose from, they choose for them;
  3. Person three: The teacher lets the person make up their own essay question within the teacher's framework.

What effect will each scenario have on their level of motivation?

Freedom enables individuals to express the innate desires that satisfy their basic needs (Morriss, 2012). Furthermore, freedom allows individuals to choose and pursue, or abandon, those endeavours as their circumstances or motivations change over time (Schwartz, 2000). However, whether that freedom facilitates, debilitates, or optimises one's motivation is another matter. This chapter demonstrates how the scenarios presented in Case Study 1, which vary in levels of freedom, affect psychological motivation.

Focus questions:

  • What is freedom?
  • What is the relationship between freedom and motivation?
  • What is the optimal amount of freedom for motivation?

What is freedom?

Figure 1. Old handcuffs used to enslave a person, therefore taking away their freedom.

Negative freedom is "freedom from" the state or government influences, while positive freedom is "freedom to: act, to take control of one’s own life perhaps with the help of the government (Bowring, 2015). Morriss (2012) argued that the difference between lacking freedom to act and lacking the power to act is that lack of freedom insults, meaning that one cannot do something due to a constraint that demeans one, such as being a slave (see Figure 1), whereas lacking power injures, meaning one cannot do things, such as being poor. Autonomy is to have the ability to freely choose whichever option one wants, so long as it does not impede another’s freedom for autonomy, and to do so without the interference of another, whether the interference is accidental or intentional (Parchomovsky & Stein, 2021). Combining these three perspectives, the concept of freedom starts to look like open choices within a constraint or boundaries of some sort. Having unlimited freedom would impact another person’s freedom, and having too little freedom would take away the person’s autonomy. Therefore, this suggests that some type of balance between excessive freedom and a lack of freedom is optimal.

Reflection question:

How motivated would you be doing a task you chose to do compared to a task you were forced to do?

Self-determination and motivation


There are two main motivators: Extrinsic (or external) motivation and intrinsic (or internal) motivation. Extrinsic motivation can be further broken down in several types of external motivators. These motivators form the main points in The self-determination theory (SDT).

Self-determination theory


The self-determination theory (SDT) differentiates between controlled motivation and autonomous motivation (Gagné & Deci, 2005). These sit on a continuum starting with amotivation, and then progressively internalising the extrinsic motivations will lead to greater autonomy (Gagné & Deci, 2005; Figure 2). Being fully autonomous or intrinsically motivated involves acting of one's own volition and having a choice to do so (Gagné & Deci, 2005). To be self-determined is to have these three psychological needs satisfied: competence, relatedness, and autonomy (Gagné & Deci, 2005).

A meta-analysis on SDT from 124 samples showed support for the incremental and discriminant validity of the different types of motivation within the SDT (Van den Broeck et al., 2021). The results also indicated that the most important type of motivation for well-being, behaviour, and attitude was intrinsic motivation, with amotivation showing only negative outcomes (Van den Broeck et al., 2021).

A study explored the social-environmental conditions that support and hinder athletes’ psychological needs within the SDT framework (Bartholomew et al., 2011). Batholomew et al. (2011) found that the presence of ill-being in sport, such as depression, burnout, and disordered eating, is less related to the lack of need satisfaction, specifically lack of feeling of autonomy, and more related to the thwarting of those needs by coaches’ control. This implies that thwarting the sense of autonomy, and therefore freedom, in sport settings, is more detrimental to people’s psychological well-being than if the sense of autonomy was not there in the first place.

Figure 2. Self-determination continuum.

Intrinsic motivation


Intrinsically motivated undertakings are goal-directed; the accomplishment of the goal and the pursuit of the undertaking are no longer distinguishable, and the person experiences pursuing the undertaking as achieving the goal (Deci, 1971).

A study on teachers' intrinsic motivation to teach and students' intrinsic motivation to learn explored the relationship between the two and demonstrated that when the teacher is intrinsically motivated to teach, they tend to foster autonomy, which has a significant positive impact on the students’ intrinsic motivation to learn (Zou et al., 2023). This is because, when the teacher gives their student space for autonomy, the student's intrinsic motivation is developed further as they can explore what they want to learn.

Extrinsic motivation


Extrinsic motivation is a motivation by something external to oneself, such as money (Deci et al., 2001). There are some benefits and downsides to extrinsic motivation. Expressing extrinsic motives as a potential employee, rather than intrinsic motives when applying for a job, has been shown to decrease the chance of hiring the extrinsically motivated candidate and is termed "motivation purity bias" (Derfler-Rozin & Pitesa, 2020). This is perhaps because the managers think that employees will be less motivated to work, as they are more focussed on external rewards. A study on forest conservation among children and adolescents demonstrated that extrinsic motivation (risk of losing endowment), rather than intrinsic motivation, showed more success in cooperating in maintaining the forest (Bowie et al., 2022). When it comes to a boring tasks, utilising the extrinsic motivation method is far better to produce the desired outcomes. This is because when a task is not intrinsically motivating, that is not enjoyable for its own sake, then external reward will give the individual the motivational drive to complete the task.

Test yourself!

1 Extrinsic motivation is doing an activity just because you like doing it:


2 Amotivation is the strongest motivation to act:


Excessive freedom on motivation


Reflection question:

Imagine you are playing a game that has total freedom and no rules. You have the first move, what do you do?

Using language as an example, one can say whatever one wants about anything, but it is the linguistic constraint in forms of rules that enables us to understand each other. Without the set of rules around language, the language would just be unrecognisable noises. Schwartz (2000) argues that, if the self were to be fully self-determined, it would need to be without any constraints: social conventions, habits, or biological constraints. When self-determination is taken to that extreme, it leads to a tyranny of choice, and not freedom of choice (Schwartz, 2000). According to rational choice theory, a rational chooser can always express a preference (Schwartz, 2000). Habits, traditions, and culture influence and assist human beings in constraining their choices, allowing them to justify those choices and draw satisfaction from them (Schwartz, 2000). One cannot have all the information in the world that one needs to make a decision; if we treat information as a ‘good’ or as a price that can be consumed, the theory becomes more realistic, because one can base the choice on the information one has (Schwartz, 2000). Schwartz (2000) argues that if we were to live in a world where everything was a matter of choice, our rational choice mechanism would be overwhelmed rather than empowered. Therefore, having no rules or constraint is not freedom that satisfies needs, but a tyranny of freedom because it overwhelms our mechanisms to choose and makes us less satisfied with our choices and less motivated to choose, possibly leading to lack of motivation.

The too-much-choice effect states that a higher number of options reduces the motivation to make a choice as well as the satisfaction with the chosen option (Scheibehenne et al., 2009). In a series of studies on the too-much-choice-effect, Greifeneder et al. (2010) demonstrated that it was not the amount of alternative (low of 3 options, to up to 30 options), rather the increase in choice complexity (pairings of non-redundant information needed to be evaluated, similarity of alternatives) that facilitated a too-much-choice-effect. The results indicated that when options were spread out over many attributes, the too-much-choice-effect was observed, but when options were spread out over few attributes, satisfaction was not related to the too-much-choice-effect (Greifeneder et al., 2010). These results suggest that the too-much-choice-effect may only occur when a certain level of choice complexity is reached. In another example, in which three studies investigated the too-much-choice effect, the only variable that was found to have the effect was the justification of one’s choice (Scheibehenne et al., 2009). Having too much choice (like person one in Case Study 1) seems to result in decreased satisfaction and reduced motivation to make the choice; the person is therefore motivated to pick from fewer options and, as a result, be more satisfied with that choice.

Lack of freedom on motivation


People generally do not like it when their freedom is taken away from them, particularly if that freedom means a great deal to them. However, one can also be helpless to do anything about their freedom being taken away. Reactance and Learned helplessness are two different psychological reactions to freedom being threatened or lost.

Reactance theory


Case study 2:

A parent tells a child to wear a particular jacket at school. If the child believes they are not free to choose what jacket to wear they will likely experience a reactance, a desire to wear something else in order to satisfy their psychological need for autonomy.

Reactance is the motivation to reclaim or restore a person’s freedom when it has been threatened or lost; this leads individuals to resist the social influence of others (Miron & Brehm, 2006). The degree of reactance depends on the person's subjective feeling of the freedom that is being lost or threatened, which can lead to behavioural aggression or hostility and cognitive effect, such as changing one's opinion about the freedom loss or threat (Van Petegem et al., 2015).

For example, if a child does not care about what they wear, they do not experience reactance if the parent makes the decision. Reactance can be measured through subjective feeling about the freedom threat or through physiological arousal, such as heart rate (Steindl et al., 2015). Reactance is associated with approach motivation, due to its striving to restore the person’s freedom (Steindl et al., 2015). Furthermore, reactance is reactive rather than proactive, as the person must have a freedom to begin with that is being taken (Miron & Brehm, 2006). However, when the cost of restoring the freedom exceeds one’s own capacity, the individual surrenders the freedom (Miron & Brehm, 2006). Therefore, depending on what kind freedom is being taken away, the person responds with reactance to restore that freedom if capable.

In a series of studies, Van Petegem et al. (2015) examined if controlling parenting style would lead to reactance and autonomy need frustration in adolescents as in self-determination theory (N = 1,472, ages between 12 and 21 years old). The authors found that children who experienced higher autonomy need frustration and reactance when parents used a controlling parenting style, and the degree of reactance, predicted higher non-compliance to the parents’ request (Van Petegem et al., 2015). Therefore, taking away or diminishing a person's autonomy and freedom fosters unproductive relationship dynamics (see person two in Case Study 1).

Learned helplessness

Figure 3. Left side of the Prefrontal cortex.

In contrast to reactance, people with learned helplessness do not feel capable or motivated to change their loss of freedom situation. Learned helplessness was discovered in an experiment when dogs were exposed to an inescapable electric shock. When the same dogs were placed in a different situation, they failed to escape the shock even when it was possible (Maier & Seligman, 1976). The dogs learned they could not gain their freedom, and therefore, became passive to their surroundings. However, years later it was found that the theory was backwards. The passivity to the shock is the default reaction where the unlearned response is caused by serotonergic activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), which inhibits escape (Maier & Seligman, 2016). However, the passivity can be surpassed by learning control, as the medial prefrontal cortex (see Figure 3) detects the exercise of control and leads to automatic inhibition of the DRN. This suggests that the dogs can learn to have control over an unpleasant event (Maier & Seligman, 2016). In the context of human behaviours, these studies suggest that if a person does not learn to have or exercise control over their own choices then, by default, they will be unable to help themselves.

A study by Filippello et al. (2020) investigated the relationship between teachers’ autonomy support and psychological control on academic achievement by examining the mediating role of school mastery orientation and learned helplessness (N = 395, aged between 14 – 18 years old). The study defined mastery orientation as taking on challenging tasks, showing persistence despite failure, and being intrinsically motivated (Filippello et al., 2020). Psychological control was characterised by communication of disappointment towards students who failed to reach the school’s standards (Filippello et al., 2020). Results demonstrated that the teacher-supported autonomy in students would predict students' mastery orientation towards learning leading to higher academic achievement (Filippello et al., 2020). While the teacher-supported psychological control in students would predict students’ learned helplessness toward learning and led to lower academic achievement (Filippello et al., 2020)[grammar?]. These results demonstrate that if a teacher fosters freedom of autonomy within the classroom, then students are more likely to show higher academic achievement. This study implies that when students’ are made to feel worse about their work, they will be less academically successful (see person two in Case Study 1).



A study on the motivation of prisoners to partake in educational programs in Flanders (Belgium) using a questionnaire (N = 486) demonstrated that 29% of respondents partook in education within the prison before and during the study (Halimi et al., 2017). Highest indicated motives to partake were the desire to learn (63.2%), get a degree (54.7%), and make future plans (40.2%) (Halimi et al., 2017). The study showed that the length of imprisonment went hand in hand with reduced likelihood of normalisation orientation, that is behaviour outside of prison, regarding learning (Halimi et al., 2017). This means that the longer the prison sentence, the less likely an individual is motivated to seek behaviour that corresponds with education. Additional implications from this study are that the further away one sees the possibility of freedom, the less one is motivated to gain competence in the form of education.

Optimal freedom on motivation


Optimal freedom for psychological motivation is found in a autonomy supported boundary. A study investigated teachers’ style that supported autonomy and provided structure on students’ engagement over 133 classrooms in public high schools with 1,584 students between grades 9 to 11 in the United States (Jang et al., 2010). The authors examined self-report (students’ perspective) and behavioural engagement measures (teachers' observation rating of students) between timetabled classes, rather than within each class (Jang et al., 2010). The results demonstrated that structure and autonomy support were positively correlated, and both predicted students’ behavioural engagement, but autonomy support was the sole predictor for students’ self-reported engagement (Jang et al., 2010). However, limitations were that the sample only included high school students and their teachers, as well as possible observer bias in the behavioural rating (Jang et al., 2010). Implications of the study can assist teachers who have trouble with supporting students’ engagement during learning, as teachers who provide both autonomy support and structure predict increased classroom engagement.

Freedom within a boundary that directs the goal facilitates optimal motivation. Task rules decrease objective freedom due to constraints in the behavioural options when completing an activity (Mutter et al., 2023). This can reduce the individual's subjective psychological freedom; that is, the experience that their action aligns with their desires and intentions instead of external forces (Mutter et al., 2023). Such rules, however, can offer a sense of direction by clearly defining the goal or sub-goals (Mutter et al., 2023). There can be a risk of imposing rules on an activity as that goes against sense of autonomy and therefore, intrinsic motivation. With more rules added, the less intrinsically motivated a person should be.

A series of studies investigating the effects of task rules on a creative writing activity's impact on intrinsic motivation, particularly regarding psychological freedom and sense of direction as the mechanisms, demonstrated that the presence of rules does decrease intrinsic motivation indirectly by limiting the participants' psychological freedom (Mutter et al., 2023). However, the task rules gave the participants a sense of direction, resulting in a net neutral effect on intrinsic motivation. This demonstrates that rules that provide purpose and are presented in an autonomy-supportive manner can support intrinsic motivation (Mutter et al., 2023). This implies that students could benefit from autonomy supported rules to facilitate their intrinsic motivation.

They also found that with the rules that provided a better sense of direction on the specificity of their goals also enhanced their flow experiences, which was indicated by intrinsic rewards and challenge-skill balance (Mutter et al., 2023). The concept of "flow" is when an individual is completely consciously absorbed in an activity for their own enjoyment and pleasure, time flies by during the activity, with movement, thought and action follow one another without a pause (Tse et al., 2020). However, the challenge between the activity and the skill of the person needs to be in an optimally correct ratio to achieve a state of flow (Tse et al., 2020). When people have optimal freedom, they become more intrinsically motivated in doing an activity which can lead to flow. A limitation of the study was that they only used one task rule in a specific context which is difficult to generalise to broader effect of task rules on intrinsic motivation (Mutter et al., 2023). These findings display the double-edged sword of the rules that can limit freedom on intrinsic motivation while enhancing it at as well. This implies that if teachers give task rules to their students that support their autonomy then those students will be intrinsically motivated to complete the task (see person three in Case Study 1).



Having too much freedom debilitates a person’s motivation to choose, as people become overwhelmed and less satisfied with their choices (Greifeneder et al., 2010). In contrast, having too little freedom makes people frustrated and unable to become self-determined and to satisfy their psychological needs, such as feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Maier & Seligman, 1976; Miron & Brehm, 2006). Finding the optimal balance of freedom which is within some form of boundary or set of rules that facilitates autonomy, enhances their motivation and well-being (Mutter et al., 2023). Rules enable people to have a direction within their constraints of freedom, and with direction comes satisfaction in moving towards a chosen goal. Future research could focus on how balancing optimal freedom with restriction affect motivation within work, school or general life settings.

See also



Bartholomew, K. J., Ntoumanis, N., Ryan, R. M., Bosch, J. A., & Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C. (2011). Self-determination theory and diminished functioning: The role of interpersonal control and psychological need thwarting. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37(11), 1459–1473.

Bowie, A., Zhou, W., Tan, J., White, P., Stoinski, T., Su, Y., & Hare, B. (2022). Motivating children’s cooperation to conserve forests. Conservation Biology, 36(4).

Bowring, F. (2015). Negative and positive freedom: Lessons from, and to, sociology. Sociology (Oxford), 49(1), 156–171.

Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105–115.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 1–27.

Derfler-Rozin, R., & Pitesa, M. (2020). Motivation purity bias: Expression of extrinsic motivation undermines perceived intrinsic motivation and engenders bias in selection decisions. Academy of Management journal, 63(6), 1840–1864.

Filippello, P., Buzzai, C., Costa, S., Orecchio, S., & Sorrenti, L. (2020). Teaching style and academic achievement: The mediating role of learned helplessness and mastery orientation. Psychology in the Schools, 57(1), 5–16.

Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of organizational behavior, 26(4), 331–362.

Greifeneder, R., Scheibehenne, B., & Kleber, N. (2010). Less may be more when choosing is difficult: Choice complexity and too much choice. Acta psychologica, 133(1), 45–50.

Halimi, M., Brosens, D., De Donder, L., & Engels, N. (2017). Learning during imprisonment: Prisoners’ motives to educational participation within a remand prison in Belgium. Journal of correctional education (1974), 68(1), 3–31.

Jang, H., Reeve, J., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 588–600.

Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 105(1), 3–46.

Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from Neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349–367.

Miron, A. M., & Brehm, J. W. (2006). Reactance theory – 40 years later. Zeitschrift Für Sozialpsychologie, 37(1), 9–18.

Morriss, P. (2012). What is freedom if it is not power? Theoria (Pietermaritzburg), 59(132), 1–25.

Mutter, E. R., Liu, Z., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Oettingen, G. (2023). More direction but less freedom? How task rules affect intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 152(5), 1484–1501.

Parchomovsky, G., & Stein, A. (2021). Autonomy. The University of Toronto law journal, 71(1), 61–90.

Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R., & Todd, P. M. (2009). What moderates the too-much-choice effect? Psychology & marketing, 26(3), 229–253.

Schwartz, B. (2000). Self-determination: The tyranny of freedom. The American psychologist, 55(1), 79–88.

Steindl, C., Jonas, E., Sittenthaler, S., Traut-Mattausch, E., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Understanding psychological reactance: new developments and findings. Zeitschrift Für Psychologie, 223(4), 205–214.

Tse, D. C. K., Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2020). Beyond challenge-seeking and skill-building: Toward the lifespan developmental perspective on flow theory. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(2), 171–182.

Van den Broeck, A., Howard, J. L., Van Vaerenbergh, Y., Leroy, H., & Gagné, M. (2021). Beyond intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis on self-determination theory’s multidimensional conceptualization of work motivation. Organizational psychology review, 11(3), 240–273.

Van Petegem, S., Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., & Beyers, W. (2015). Rebels with a cause? adolescent defiance from the perspective of reactance theory and self-determination theory. Child Development, 86(3), 903–918.

Zou, H., Yao, J., Zhang, Y., & Huang, X. (2023). The influence of teachers’ intrinsic motivation on students’ intrinsic motivation: The mediating role of teachers’ motivating style and teacher‐student relationships. Psychology in the Schools.