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Why We Thrive Differently Given Freedom - How to unlock the potential of yourself and the people around you.

06 Nov 2023

Why do people choose specific paths and ignore countless others? Why might a mathematician be content with a casual bike ride as their sole source of exercise, while marathon runners prioritize their running time over complex algebraic equations?

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Why do people choose specific paths and ignore countless others? Why might a mathematician be content with a casual bike ride as their sole source of exercise, while marathon runners prioritize their running time over complex algebraic equations? The answer is simple: people are drawn to what captivates them and tend to steer clear of what doesn't. This freedom to pursue passions fuels motivation, leading to greater achievements. In this way, a mathematician can find innovative solutions to complex problems, and a marathon runner can surpass their personal best.

Unfortunately, however, most of us aren't born as elite runners or math geniuses, and freely following our passions is not always so straightforward. Navigating our careers can often feel like finding our way through a labyrinth: intimidating and overwhelming. Even when we have the freedom to choose, we feel like we can’t fully fulfill our needs and aspirations. This raises the question: does the power of choice still contribute to better performances in fields where we are not exactly experts?

How does choice affect learning?

The freedom to choose is a widely studied phenomenon in psychology. Thanks to the Self-Determination Theory, we understand its importance for motivation and personal growth (Deci & Ryan, 1985). According to this theory, autonomy is at the center of intrinsic motivation. When you have the freedom to choose, you're more likely to engage in activities out of genuine interest and enjoyment, making you learn what you truly desire. This is essential not only because it is associated with well-being, but also because it boosts learning.

Other than autonomy, self-determination theory suggests that competence supports intrinsic motivation, which is essentially a measure of how effective an individual feels when engaging in an activity. When you perceive yourself as skilled or proficient, you are often more motivated to learn and explore. How competence and autonomy exactly interact, however, remains unclear. One might question whether autonomy affects learning only when an individual feels masterful and in control over their learning environment. After all, with a low level of competence, it's challenging to pursue your goals.

Our study

To investigate this hypothesis, we conducted a learning experiment. In this experiment, participants were shown two boxes with question marks on a computer screen, concealing hidden objects underneath. They were directed to press a button to unveil an object from one of the two boxes. After learning many items, participants were shown a series of objects and asked to indicate whether they had seen each object before to test their memory.

We manipulated competence by varying the task's difficulty, specifically by adding shades over the objects, making them harder to memorize. Our findings clearly demonstrated that as task difficulty lowered, memory performance increased. This suggests that competence boosts learning. This was, however, not the main takeaway of our study. Our primary focus was to determine whether the effect of autonomy varied based on competence levels. To assess this, we adjusted autonomy by occasionally allowing participants the choice of which of the two boxes to reveal, while at other times, the choice was made for them.

How did this choice impact learning? You might expect that choice would always boost memory performance, but this is not exactly what we found. We discovered that choice positively affected memory only when task difficulty was low. When task difficulty was high, there was no effect of autonomy. This suggests that the benefits of autonomy on learning are most pronounced when individuals have the skills to engage meaningfully with the task. If you lack competence, the freedom to choose loses its beneficial impact, as you can’t fully learn what you desire.

So, what can we take away from this study?

Returning to the example of the out-of-shape mathematician, giving them the option to choose between training for a 10k run or a bike race is unlikely to enhance their performance in either activity compared to simply assigning them one of those tasks. On the other hand, if the academic turns out to be quite the athlete, the freedom to choose could actually boost their performance.

While it's important to exercise caution when interpreting these findings, given that future research in more real-life settings should validate them, the relationship between autonomy and competence presents a promising pathway for possibly improving educational outcomes. It's commonly believed that allowing students the freedom to pursue their interests boosts motivation. However, this study shows that such freedom does not support learning if students struggle with the content. When offering students choices, or when providing employees with freedom in the workplace, their competence should be taken into account. The advantage of having options truly blossoms when you possess a certain skill level in the activity at hand, and this will be demonstrated when an athletic mathematician chooses to shatter all records in a 10k run.


  • Autonomy and competence are frequently studied topics, however their interaction remains unclear.
  • Our study reveals that choice enhances memory performance, but only for those with a high level of competence.
  • Future work can explore if freedom in classrooms and workplaces undermine performance when skill level is low.


Abrahamse, M. D., Bekkering, H., & Van Lieshout, L. L. F. (2023). The Interplay Between the Motivational Drives of Autonomy and Competence on Declarative Memory. PsyArXiv

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. In Springer eBooks