Demonstration against corona measures in Berlin

Coronavirus measures? Alright – but respect my autonomy!

The rules and regulations implemented to prevent the spread of the coronavirus –local or national lockdowns, temporary closure of public facilities, the obligation to cover mouth and nose in public transport– are being discussed more and more critically. While most people seem to agree with the measures adopted by their governments, an increasing number of people are beginning to oppose them. In many countries, opponents of the rules enacted by their governments have tried to make their voices heard (dpa, 2020, Dollen & Navis, 2020). Public opinion seems to be divided. This is problematic for several reasons. First, an effective fight against the coronavirus builds on social cohesion – resistance against the measures may, in extreme cases, pose a threat to the health of fellow citizens. Second, the social division may negatively affect our social climate and mutual respect. At some point, we must ask ourselves: do we want to emerge from this crisis as a divided society? What would this mean for crises we may have to deal with in the future?


At some point, we must ask ourselves: do we want to emerge from this crisis as a divided society?


This post will not address the (ab)use of protest for political purposes. Instead, it was written with the idea in mind that social cohesion cannot be achieved without mutual understanding. Finding ways to motivate people to adhere to the measures may have to start with understanding the common sentiment underlying their resistance: a perceived threat to autonomy.


Autonomy does not mean the absence of rules

Autonomous acts are those that are in line with one’s values and interests (Ryan and Deci, 2006, p. 1560). Autonomy is a fundamentally subjective experience: any particular demand, rule, or prohibition may be perceived as a threat to autonomy by one person but not another. Applied to the context of the measures against the coronavirus, this means that enacted rules and regulations do not necessarily limit a person’s sense of autonomy; they only do so if they are perceived as externally imposed – that is, if the person does not consent to them.

Governmental acts that maintain or support citizens’ sense of autonomy increase the perception of legitimacy and trust (DeCaro et al., 2017). In contrast, restricting individual autonomy may lead to an even stronger disregard of the measures (Brehm & Brehm, 2013). That means that the more the opponents of the measures perceive them as a threat to their autonomy, the heavier their protest will be! This vicious circle deepens the trenches between supporters and opponents of the measures, and increases the risk of spreading the virus.

Given these facts, it seems foolish to simply ignore or condemn those who experience the measures as autonomy-depleting. Instead, governments and their executive entities must find ways to develop, implement, and communicate regulations so they do not pose a threat to people’s perceived autonomy. Sounds difficult? It surely is! Fortunately, we can fall back on psychological research findings that point to possible solutions to secure autonomy in times of strict coronavirus measures.


The more the opponents of the measures perceive them as a threat to their autonomy, the heavier their protest will be!


Securing autonomy in times of strict coronavirus measures

Research on autonomous motivation in educational (e.g., Assor et al., 2002), intergroup (e.g.,Kachanoff et al., 2019), and governance settings (e.g., DeCaro and Stokes, 2013) suggests three ways in which we may be able to maintain people’s autonomy in times of strict coronavirus measures.


1) Participatory rule-making. A study by DeCaro et al. (2015) showed that having the ability to enforce rules that were chosen by the own group was perceived as empowering, whereas enforcing rules that were imposed externally was seen as oppressive. The researchers compared voluntary cooperation in a resource dilemma experiment. Participants who were provided with the opportunity to vote for rules and to use sanctions to enforce them cooperated most, whereas participants for whom rules were externally imposed and enforced cooperated least. The findings support the idea that including people in the decision-making process enhances their inner motivation to adhere to them (DeCaro and Stokes, 2013). Thus, an effective way to foster citizens’ autonomy may be to provide them with the possibility to engage in the rule-making process. For example, people could be provided with the option to indicate their preferences (via online surveys or polls) on how to organize access to facilities without increasing the risk of infection. The survey results and subsequent measures should then be communicated to the public in a way that signals active acknowledgment of their opinions.


An effective way to foster citizens’ autonomy may be to provide them with the possibility to engage in the rule-making process


2) Implementation of rules on the group level. Another way to enhance the sense of autonomy may be to leave some manoeuvring room for social groups (like sports, religious, or professional groups) regarding the implementation and communication of general guidelines. This strategy would enhance individual autonomy in two important ways. First, group members have the expert knowledge that is necessary to implement the measures in ways that allow certain activities to continue, while at the same time preventing the virus from spreading. Second, a person’s autonomy may be maintained by preserving the autonomy of the social group with which he or she identifies. Results of a study by Kachanoff et al. (2019), for example, showed that autonomy-depletion occurs when people feel that external forces restrict their group’s collective autonomy. While governments have put effort into creating a sense of “we against the virus” on the national or global level, some people might find it challenging to identify with their nation or the world’s population. To enhance a sense of personal autonomy, the option of formulating rules on the group level should be taken whenever possible without increasing the risk of infection. A local example might be Groningen’s motivation to maintain its status as a ‘low infection’ area within the Netherlands.


Even though the goal of most measures may quickly become apparent, not understanding their relevance may create immediate irritation


3) Emphasizing the relevance of rules. Finally, it has to be ensured that the implemented rules are perceived as sensible and relevant (Assor et al., 2002; DeCaro et al., 2017). Instructions on how to behave to prevent the spread of the virus can be found everywhere in the public space, and it is easy to understand why washing your hands helps preventing the spread of the coronavirus. But it might be less clear why you are not allowed to enter a store without a shopping cart, or why only window seats should be occupied in trains. Even though the goal of most measures may quickly become apparent, not understanding their relevance at the very first instance may create immediate irritation that decreases perceived autonomy. Rules that may not be intuitively understandable need to be explained immediately. Information boards and posters in public spaces, updates via compatible apps or web pages, and well-instructed shop and train attendants may remedy the situation.


Autonomous individuals make strong societies

As human beings, we want to feel autonomous. But we are also part of a society that seeks to fight the spread of a virus that endangers public health. While few people doubt or deliberately ignore the communicated facts regarding the risk of the virus, some feel uncomfortable with the measures taken as they perceive them as limiting their autonomy. Participatory rule-making, the implementation of measures on the level of social groups, and accurate communication of the relevance and effectiveness of rules may alleviate the risks of experiencing the enacted measures as autonomy-depleting. Implementing these guidelines may not only foster rule compliance, but also support participatory processes and the autonomy of social groups. Especially in times of threat and uncertainty, we should remember that social cohesion builds on the respect we pay to individual autonomy, rather than the mere enforcement of rules.


Image credit: Photo of demonstration against corona measures in Berlin, made by “TG”, used with permission.



Assor, A., Kaplan, H., & Roth, G. (2002). Choice is good, but relevance is excellent: Autonomy-enhancing and suppressing teacher behaviours predicting students’ engagement in schoolwork. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72(2), 261–278.

Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (2013). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. Academic Press.

Dollen, C. & Navis, J.-W. (2020, June 29). Protesters rally against coronavirus measures across Europe. Retrieved from:

DeCaro, D. A., Janssen, M. A., & Lee, A. (2015). Synergistic effects of voting and enforcement on internalized motivation to cooperate in a resource dilemma. Judgment and Decision Making,10(6), 511–537.

DeCaro, D. A., Arnold, C. A., Frimpong Boamah, E., & Garmestani, A. S. (2017). Understanding and applying principles of social cognition and decision making in adaptive environmental governance. Ecology and Society, 22(1), 1-33.

DeCaro, D. A., & Stokes, M. K. (2013). Public Participation and Institutional Fit: A Social-Psychological Perspective. Ecology and Society, 18(4).

dpa. (2020, June 29). Protesters rally against coronavirus measures across Europe. Retrieved from:

Kachanoff, F. J., Taylor, D. M., Caouette, J., Khullar, T. H., & Wohl, M. J. A. (2019). The chains on all my people are the chains on me: Restrictions to collective autonomy undermine the personal autonomy and psychological well-being of group members. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(1), 141–165.

Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L., Grolnick, W. S., & LaGuardia, J. G. (2006). The significance of autonomy and autonomy support in psychological development and psychopathology. In D. Cicchetti & D. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Theory and methods. New York, Wiley.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2006). Self-Regulation and the Problem of Human Autonomy: Does Psychology Need Choice, Self-Determination, and Will? Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1557–1586.

Anne-Kathrin Kleine is a PhD student in the Organizational Psychology group. In her current research, she focuses on the merits and demerits of proactive work behavior during occupational transitions. She is particularly interested in the mechanisms that influence students’ well-being during the transition from university to work. Moreover, she does research on early-stage entrepreneurs’ learning behavior.

Key publications

Kleine, A. K., Rudolph, C. W., & Zacher, H. (2019). Thriving at work: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40(9-10), 973-999.

Kleine, A. K., Hallensleben, N., Mehnert, A., Hönig, K., & Ernst, J. (2019). Psychological interventions targeting partners of cancer patients: A systematic review. Critical reviews in oncology/hematology, 140, 52-66.

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