Take Five

Five Questions with Professor Arlen Moller

Arlen Moller is an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Tech. His primary research interest involves promoting healthy lifestyle changes that last. He and Illinois Tech Associate Professor of Psychology Nicole “Nikki” Legate recently completed a study that tested different communication strategies for encouraging people to socially distance during the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arlen Moller
Photo: Courtesy of the Institute of Design (ID)
Your study notes that controlling messaging—messages that were authoritarian—increased “controlled motivation,” which is a “poorly internalized form of motivation.” Could you explain why?
A: It helps to contrast the idea of autonomous motivation with controlled motivation. Autonomous motivation involves feeling like you fully and freely endorse what you’re doing, and is considered well internalized. The alternative, controlled motivation, involves feeling pressured or coerced. Controlled motivation is considered poorly internalized in the sense that we can be motivated (sometimes strongly) without fully and freely endorsing what we’re doing.
Can you give an example of “autonomy supportive” messaging that you thought was particularly effective?
A: Messaging that communicates empathy and respect. When spoken, this messaging can include tone of voice, pitch, and more. Words matter, too. For example, the words used for a controlling message might be: “you must wear a mask,” with the speaker leaning into “must.” To contrast styles, the words used for an autonomy-supportive message might be: “you might choose to wear a mask, and here are the reasons why.”
You note in the same study that none of the messages about social distancing influenced a person’s “autonomous motivation,” and this surprised you. Why?
A: In hindsight, one factor that we didn’t adequately account for is that the participants in our study were exposed to lots of different messages encouraging social distancing during the early months of the pandemic. So, their motivations to socially distance were being influenced not just by the messages we showed them, but by thousands of other messages.
You’re currently interested in the psychology of “defiant backlash.” In the case of social distancing, “defiant backlash” resulted in less long-term behavioral intentions to socially distance in the future. Why did this happen?
A: Defiant backlash is an emotional, often irrational, way of reasserting control when people feel their autonomy is threatened. It involves doing the opposite of what was asked for. Ironically, doing the opposite of what’s been asked is often self-defeating, and something a person doesn’t really endorse in a meaningful way. Because this reaction is emotional rather than rational, when people reflect on it later, they often regret how they behaved. Ultimately, I’m not pro- or anti- disobedience to authority—both can be good or bad—more important is whether people really endorse their reasons.
Are there any lasting effects of “defiant backlash?” Does the use of controlled or autonomous motivation affect how people view the messaging agencies themselves over the long term?
A: In the big picture, a lot of studies find that lives characterized by more controlled motivation (less autonomous motivation) are lives that tend to be less happy, healthy, and satisfying. By the same token, when people go through life regularly allowing themselves to be reflexively defiant for the sake of being defiant, that’s typically not a good recipe for health or happiness. In terms of public safety, to the extent that controlling communication styles used by government officials may have exacerbated defiant backlash to COVID-19-specific policies, the long-term concern is that this could extend to other public safety measures.