Freedom, not coercion

February 07, 2018

A feeling of freedom and a sense of responsibility are directly related to one another. Scientists from HSE's International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation, the University of Missouri and Omsk State University have become the first to prove this link in a study involving both Russian and American participants.


The various ways in which the words 'freedom' and 'responsibility' can be understood has been examined in various fields of science already, including philosophy, ethics and psychology. However, how these understandings are related had never been investigated - until now. The research carried out by this team of scientists shows that the road to responsibility involves giving a person a sense of freedom. An individual can choose to feel a sense of responsibility, provided that he or she is given enough freedom to do so.

Scientists carried out a series of experiments on students from Russian and American universities - 1430 in total. In Russia, the research was carried out in 3 regions - Altai, Tomsk and Omsk, and in the USA, the experiments were carried out in Missouri, where the University of Missouri served as a base. Research which aims to determine freedom employs the understanding of 'autonomy'. Self-Determination Theory considers it to be a basic human need. Should a person not have a choice, this basic need is not met, which negatively impacts a person's psychological well-being and has other negative effects.

The scientists used methods which measured the level of responsibility and autonomy as personality traits. The results showed that these two are interrelated. The higher a person's level of autonomy, the more responsibility he or she feels.

The participants were used to imagine themselves in various situations which had been specifically thought-out by the researchers, and describe their feelings and what they would do. The person giving the instructions to the participant (someone close to them, a person in a position of power, or a stranger) either gave them freedom in deciding how to complete the task, or didn't, and also gave them a sense of how responsible they would be for the result. For example, a student was asked to imagine that he was asked by a professor to carry out an important scientific project which was closely related to his field of study. In one case, the student had the freedom to choose how to act, and in the other, the professor determined the strategy to be implemented, and the student simply carried out the professor's orders. The student was then told that the project turned out to be unsuccessful.

Research participants had to assess whether they felt that their own actions were the reason for the failure, or whether they explained it to be a result of extenuating circumstances and tried to figure out what these reasons were.

In those situations where participants were offered freedom, they felt a greater sense of responsibility. They were ready to accept the possible negative consequences of their actions and were less likely to look for other reasons for these consequences. In addition, the results showed that telling someone to take responsibility is ineffective. It doesn't result in a higher likelihood that the person will do so.

Scientists note that a person's sense of responsibility is higher if their autonomy is encouraged by those who are in positions of power or authority. This includes parents, teachers and bosses. 'The freedom to choose, the respect, and the understanding from the person's boss, or the individual in the position of power - this is what helps a person grow and become more effective', the research concludes. In contrast, using words such as 'should' and 'have to' are less effective in encouraging someone to take responsibility, and even have the opposite effect.

The results for Russian participants were similar to those obtained for American participants, however scientists did identify some cultural particularities. Russians are less likely to take responsibility than Americans. This was deemed by scientists to be a result of the different levels of societal freedom experienced by Russians and Americans.

Russians, however, were found to be more sensitive to who was giving the instructions and how they were given. Their sense of responsibility was found to be higher than that of Americans when the person was close to them; for example, a relative or a friend. The main factor in these situations was trust. Therefore, in these situations, the request itself was more important than what was actually being asked of the person. Scientists are confident that the results of the study 'are applicable in the fields of management and politics, where a Russian person should experience a sense of individual responsibility'.

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