Social Issues

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Overview: Self-Determination in Social Issues

Our increasingly multicultural societies are confronting hard social issues like prejudice, stigma, and victimization. Self-determination theory puts satisfaction of basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness – or a lack thereof – at the core of these problematic social issues. When people are in need supportive environments, they tend to be inclusive and help others. However, when people are in environments that thwart their basic needs, they tend to express prejudice and aggress on others. This seems to set off a vicious cycle whereby those hurtful behaviors further thwart basic psychological needs, and the needs of those they hurt. Finally, the key to intervening on these problems is providing support for basic psychological needs – especially the need for autonomy, as being prosocial and inclusive aligns with most people’s deeply-held values.

In Practice: Social Issues

Prejudice: Though national trends show a decline in racism, sexism, and homophobia over the past several decades, these and other prejudices still abound throughout society. Work in SDT tries to understand this gap, in part, by examining the quality of people’s motivation to regulate their prejudice. When people are autonomous in their desire to regulate their prejudice, it stems from their core values and beliefs, and they have a higher quality of motivation to monitor the stereotypes and prejudice they may hold. In contrast, people who are controlled in their motives to regulate their prejudice do not express prejudice out of fear of being criticized or sanctioned (e.g., at work), and this poorer form of prejudice regulation predicts higher levels of explicit and implicit prejudice. Interventions that support people’s autonomy are more effective at reducing prejudice because they help people to better internalize the value of not acting on prejudice. Conversely, prejudice-reduction interventions that are controlling (even if well-intentioned) exacerbate the problem of prejudice as they promote this poorer form of prejudice regulation. 

Bullying: Parents and teachers play a key role in protecting against bullying behavior. Studies show that controlling parenting styles are a risk factor for kids engaging in face-to-face bullying and cyberbullying, whereas autonomy-supportive parenting styles buffer against both types of bulling. Similarly, teachers that are more autonomy supportive tend to foster more inclusive behavior among students, whereas controlling teachers produce more bullying behavior. This suggests, again, the potential for autonomy-supportive interventions to curb bullying and other aggressive behaviors in youth.

Stigma: Those who have a stigmatized, or socially devalued, identity are often on the receiving end of prejudice and bullying, and for this reason, they show higher rates of mental and physical health problems. Work in SDT shows that autonomy-supportive relationships can act as a buffering factor to these health disparities by helping them to express and accept their stigmatized identity. For example, studies with lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals reveal that autonomy-supportive relationships (parents, friends, co-workers) protect mental and physical health because they allow people to be ‘out’ about their sexual identity. In other words, autonomy support allows people to be their authentic selves, including expressing parts of themselves that are socially devalued, and this greatly benefits health.

Suggested Readings & Research

(2021) Basic and Applied Social Psychology

Ostracism in real life: Evidence that ostracizing others has costs, even when it feels justified

Legate, N. Weinstein, N. Ryan, R. M.

(2008) Child Development

Controlling parenting and physical aggression during elementary school

Joussemet, M. Vitaro, F. Barker, E. D. Cote, S. Nagin, D. S. Zoccolillo, M. Tremblay, R. E.

(2011) Psychological Science

Ironic effects of anti-prejudice messages: How motivational interventions can reduce (but also increase) prejudice

Legault, L. Gutsell, J. N. Inzlicht, M.

(1998) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Internal and external motivation to respond without prejudice

Plant, E. A. Devine, P. G.

(2017) Journal of Counseling Psychology

Autonomy support for conflictual and stigmatized identities: Effects on ownership and psychological health

Weinstein, N. Legate, N. Ryan, W. S. Sedikides, C. Cozzolino, P. J.

(2011) Psychological Science

Ironic effects of anti-prejudice messages: How motivational interventions can reduce (but also increase) prejudice

Legault, L. Gutsell, J. N. Inzlicht, M.