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J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 Jul;105(1):123-38. doi: 10.1037/a0030426. Epub 2012 Oct 29.

Self-determination, self-regulation, and the brain: autonomy improves performance by enhancing neuroaffective responsiveness to self-regulation failure.

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  • 1Psychology Department, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


The importance of autonomous motivation in improving self-regulation has been a focal topic of motivation research for almost 3 decades. Despite this extensive research, however, there has not yet been a mechanistic account of how autonomous motivation works to boost self-regulatory functioning. To address this issue, we examined the role of autonomy in 2 basic self-regulation tasks while recording a neural signal of self-regulation failure (i.e., the error-related negativity; ERN). Based on the notion that autonomy improves self-regulation, we anticipated that autonomous motivation would enhance neuroaffective responsiveness to self-regulatory failure and thus improve performance relative to controlled motivation. In Study 1 (N = 43), we found that trait autonomy was positively associated with self-regulatory performance and that this effect was mediated by increased brain-based sensitivity to self-regulation failure, as demonstrated by a larger ERN. Study 2 (N = 55) replicated and extended this pattern using an experimental manipulation of autonomy; when autonomous motivation was contextually supported, task performance increased relative to those for whom autonomy was undermined and those in a neutral condition. In addition, this effect was mediated by both increased perceptions of autonomy and larger ERN amplitudes. These findings offer deeper insight into the links among motivational orientation, brain-based performance monitoring, and self-regulation.

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