Freedom! Why a personal sense of autonomy is a good thing

What was it that Mel Gibson says in Braveheart? “They can take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

I quite like my freedom and I am sure you appreciate yours. We dislike it when we don’t have some level of control over our lives. In fact, depression can result from a reduced sense of control in ones life. But having too much control, or power, also has a bad name. We certainly don’t like the idea of politicians (or our managers!) having too much power. I often read about ‘power’ in a negative context. People abusing positions of power and the way that power corrupts. So we might think that power is a bad thing – something we shouldn’t seek! And in some ways that is probably true.

But there’s a different perspective on power and that’s what Mel (playing William Wallace the 13th Century Scottish warrior rebelling against the English) was getting at in the quote above. It is about our individual sense of power, both in terms of being free from influence of others, as well as ourselves having some influence on others.

Two recent studies looked at an individuals sense of ‘power’ and how this related to other aspects of their ilves. The first (Kifer et al., 2013) simply asked whether powerful people were happier. They did this by finding out about the level of perceived power an individual felt they had in different aspects of their lives. On the one hand ‘role’ power – how much control do you have in your job, in your relationships and friendships. On the other hand ‘dispositional’ power – how much control do you generally feel you have over your life. Participants were also asked questions about their life satisfaction, their happiness in their job and relationships, and also how ‘authentic’ they felt they led their lives.

The researchers found that the greater sense of power, the greater sense of life satisfaction. And the more power overall, the more authentic was the life lived. This is rather comforting, but also questions our stereotype of the powerful manager cruelly controlling his workers and then beating his wife (okay, maybe i’m exaggerating there!). What it suggests is that across the spectrum, the greater ones sense of power (freedom?) then the more satisfied one is. This makes sense – we don’t like being controlled, we like autonomy and freedom. We want to direct our own destiny. Power is as much about being free to choose for ourself, than it is about controlling others.

Perhaps a future question for the researchers is whether there’s a difference in the happiness levels of those that seek personal freedom versus those who like to control others (I have a prediction about that…).

The second study (Joshi and Fast 2013) is a little more surprising and a little more thought-provoking. It was also about power, but this time it was about how our sense of power influences the way we think about the future. Do we look forward to the future and make grand plans? Or do we live in the moment and throw caution to the wind? Make your prediction now…

In this study, participants had their sense of power manipulated up and then down to see what effect it would have. How does that work? Well, whilst we have a basic sense of our own ‘power’, this fluctuates depending on our mood (and other factors). If I asked you to write a story about a time when you were really powerful – then your sense of power NOW would also increase. A low power story does the opposite. Participants were asked to write a story (one way or the other) and then given a task, which assesses whether they value the future or not. For example, one way of doing this would be to offer you a choice between being given £10 now, or £30 next week. Which would you take? If you live for the moment, you’d take the tenner. If you can project your goals into the future then you would probably opt to wait for the £30.

High power leads individuals to live for the future. Low power for the moment. This is brilliant and fits with other things we know. Depressed individuals withdraw from the world and only think about the here and now, consistent with low sense of power. It also suggests that as our sense of power grows, it also expands our horizons – we start to look into the future and consider broader possibilities.

So what? Well, taking both studies into account, if you run a company, or manage a group, then if you have a low sense of control you will probably not be looking at future development. You may also not be acting in an authentic manner (I.e. not true to your values or not honestly). And if you manage managers – well, you better work at ensuring they have a sense of autonomy and control over what they are doing. If you micro-manage them too much you might find it backfire!

Having just made another deadline in writing this newsletter I am feeling full of control, authenticity, satisfaction and have a sense of hope for the future. Or maybe that was just the cafe latte and croissant I’ve just snaffled…

– Dr John –


Yona Kifer, Daniel Heller, Wei Qi Elaine Perunovic, and Adam Galinsky (2013) The Good Life of the Powerful: The Experience of Power and Authenticity Enhances Subjective Well-Being. Psychological Science. Doi:10.1177/0956797612450891

Priyanka D. Joshi and Nathanael J. Fast (2013) Power and Reduced Temporal Discounting. Psychological Science. Doi:10.1177/0956797612457950

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