In a World of Global Turmoil, Which Hills Shall We Run For and Which Tribes Should We Join?

The following article is a thank-you to all followers and visitors of my Blog. Approaching 90,000 views, this entry is a reflection on how global and local policy making is intrinsically linked to social psychology issues of social empowerment and cooperative problem-solving.

The Awareness of Crisis

Our world has entered a stage where we fight for ecological survival and depend on deep societal change on a global scale to make this happen. Rising inequality and the decline of middle classes in developed nations pose the question who, if not educated middle classes, should lead progress. The additional obstacles set out by populist movements, from Brexit to the dysfunctional governance of Donald Trump, have cast shadows over the ability of the Western civilisation to solve the pressing problems of our time. Unlike the US, Europe is geographically exposed to the turmoils created in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa. If for example, climate change continues at its current rate, hundreds of millions of climate refugees might knock on Fortress Europe instead of the currently few million trying to escape the terror of war in Syria.

Many European politicians have understood that solving this conundrum is only possible by developing our primary and secondary neighbours. This translates into fostering political and economic stability and setting the prospect of moderate wealth for the populations of Africa and the Middle-East. The age of nationalistic ‘Me first’ politics is counterproductive in a world where wealth has become an interdependent factor. In a world where everybody is looking for the best deal, everybody loses. Access to education and decent public health care are key prerequisites in the process of distributed and sustainable wealth-creation.

For starters, education and health care never work on a neoliberal market-based scheme of demand and supply. If a person has cancer, cancer cannot be exchanged for a cheaper illness. We can neither return a pre-existing condition because we don’t like its potential ramifications nor can we make our grandparents younger. If we need to provide higher education to our children, they cannot be adopted by a wealthier family to pay for costly tuition fees. Young people cannot pay for education with money that their parents don’t have. The easy way out of student loans translates into debilitating debts where each new opportunity is tied to an added obstacle to future growth. In order to ensure fair public access, the future of health care and education emerges therefore not by market forces but from supranational government-initiated networks. Intellectual elites, for the sake of not undermining their own legitimacy, share the responsibility to contribute to democratic global development.

The recent G20 summit in Hamburg served as an example of maximum investment in bringing world leaders together while yielding minimum outcomes. A community of economic self- interest representation stalls global development and does not facilitate significant cooperative projects that do not only benefit particular investors but global societal development. The lack of democratic legitimization of the world economy has never been more visible. But instead of learning from the lessons of emerging populism, world leaders continue to propagate neoliberal policies.

The Forces Within the Crisis

We see the transformation of capitalism represented by two dominating attitudes. The first is a progressive stand, represented by civil rights groups, NGOs, WHO- and UN-initiatives, attempt to transform and empower communities by bridging systemic ecological, social and biographic divides. The second, diametric aspect is resistance to change. By defending traditional cultural practices, privilege, shareholder interests and protecting monopolies, powerful groups maintain their dominance and influence. Caught in a cycle of self-preservation, they disconnect from social immersion and stall innovation by drafting policies that maintain corporate deregulation. Needless to mention that unilateral stakeholder defensiveness works diametral to an already volatile social contract.

The effects of populism, as I have experienced first hand in Thailand, are toxic not only to the extent of polarising populations during their reign, but to leave populations divided for generations after. Rifts about the ideology of political leadership run deep within the workplace, families and even personal relationships. The long-term effect of populism is the emergence of salient and socially exclusive group identities that undermine social contracts which are already threatened by the particularity of stakeholder interests that puts money before people.

Image: Sponsors of the American Diabetes Association: Obvious conflict of interest violations are not an issue in neoliberal philosophy. Screenshot from the documentary ‘What the Health’ (Anderson & Kuhn, 2017).

 

The perhaps biggest paradigm shift over the past decades is represented by the fact that the current Economy 3.0 model, which is based on democratic consensus among competing stakeholders, turns into a self-defeating system once the finite resources for maintaining exclusive stakeholderships become apparent. There is a widespread scientific consensus, backed by collective experiences of environmental disasters, that the ecological and social costs of doing business cannot be outsourced at the expense of society and our ecosphere indefinitely. The latter development is a negative feedback loop which is disruptive to businesses and communities alike. Popular examples are the emission scandals of Volkswagen and other carmakers, the pollution of oceans by microplastic and the harmful side-effects of a highly industrialised agriculture, in particular promoting monocultures, intensive livestock breeding and its associated high meat consumption. The alliance of food industries (to make people ill) and big pharma (to keep them this way as a stable source of income) is no coincidence. As shady property developers in Germany that prey on refinancing run-down housing estates occupied by social welfare recipients demonstrate, the crisis and misery of many have become a lucrative business for a few. Hiding in offshore accounts or in the darknet, authorities stall preventing criminals from targeting vulnerable populations and eroding their fragile social networks. In other cases, multinational corporations promote harmful products and services. Forces at work are certainly not in favour of progressive initiatives that face powerful adversaries.

Challenges to Transition

By contrast, the Economy 4.0 model promotes cooperation between the Civil Society, Government and Economy. Although the sustainable approach of Economy 4.0 is backed by more transparent collaborative accounts, the question arises how a transition from Economy 3.0 to 4.0 can be facilitated. The frictions created by populist policies and the limitations of stakeholder consensus have already been sketched out, which is how conflicts within the concurrent global transformation emerge. Political agendas that served nations well in the past are increasingly unable to inform new conceptual directions needed within a global environment. Borders to future growth are not only based on the limitation of available resources but also to the degree that social resources can be instrumentalized and exploited. It is not only that resources have a quantitative limit to availability, but that people rightfully expect a decent quality of life.

Supported by media discourse, international exchange and educational initiatives, awareness has emerged that people’s lives are compromised by the same protective stakeholder attitudes which decades ago still served as a guarantor of wealth. The defiant stance of workers in traditional industries, such as the coal- and steel industries, is a symptomatic expression of the dilemma that people are driven into when corporate decision makers fail to provide future prospects for their employees who have thoroughly internalised the limited perspective of their employer’s libertarian ideology. Replacing old ideologies by revolutionary new ones renders likewise futile since the question of the accountability of social change leadership persists. In our particular historical situation, we share the ownership of globalised problems, if we agree or not, which is a significant shift from a single stakeholder perspective that only follows individual business interests.

Image: Solar panels in India. Picture credit UK Department for International Development

Lastly, the dynamics and cascading nature of global problems force all participants to a fast and efficient prototyping of solutions. To avoid prolonged ill-design of policies, problem-solving and social re-design cycles require distributed multi-perspective assessment systems. The philosophy of reflecting cooperation is a huge shift from political parties designing and sugar-coating their particular group-agendas (assuming the mandate of active decision-makers) and presenting it to their voters (assuming the mandate of passive decision-takers). A more proactive, collaborative democratic approach represents, to this extent, not only a framework to substantiate social fairness but it serves as a framework for sustainable social problem-solving and design. Many NGOs and civil initiatives will likewise have to transform themselves to multi-stakeholder initiatives if they seek to initiate sustainable social change.

Running for the Hills: The Emergence of Social Design Initiatives versus Populism

Escaping from impending doom, we run for the nearest hills. Remarkably, it is the local contexts that provide the matrix and ground upon which cooperative social change emerges. The predominance of neoliberal market mechanisms over localised human concerns has already paralysed large parts of society. In the transition from Economy 3.0 to Economy 4.0, we ask questions such as:

Where can people with a medium income still find decent housing in big cities? How can children from lower socio-economic background participate in higher education? How can working parents find qualified care facilities for their children? How can people move socially upward by their honest effort and merit rather than by inheriting wealth? How can the segment of lower-skilled jobs be re-humanized? How can the entire population become enrolled in lifelong learning? How can people find meaning in their jobs and how can they find support in social networks and culture beyond their jobs? How can shared values evolve that benefit all members of society, not only a privileged few? How can local and regional economies switch to sustainable modes of production? How can inequality be diminished? How can countries reduce their national debt? How can cooperative change on a wide societal level be initiated? How can the poorest countries be woven into the vertical creation of wealth and turn into stable democratic societies?

To develop pragmatic solutions to such questions, Economy 4.0 requires grassroots social design initiatives that can respond more efficiently to local challenges as compared to traditional party politics. Much of the frustration and anger against ‘elites’ and traditional political parties stems from the inefficacy of public policy-making in addressing local concerns and issues, a weakness that populists keep exploiting. Populism obscures shared responsibilities by polarising the public view. Populism sanctions any actions by ‘us’ (the people) against ‘them’(the blamed elites) when in fact civil action ubiquitously requires adaptive political and legal frameworks in order for norms to take effect. In this light, populism evades the responsibility that people inherently share for each other.

In regressing to polarising group-mindsets that preceded the level of stakeholdership consensus, populists support the tragedy of the commons: if I can fully blame an external party for my group’s misery, I also abandon the shared ownership of the problem at hand by disconnecting systemic cause and effect. Finding scapegoats is always easier than managing integrative processes between people. The externalising and internalising psychology of populists resembles juvenile psychology which correlates with a diminished set of problem-solving skills.

Capital in the 21st Century and the Definition of Progress

Given the need for local social transformation, the future of complex societies lies not only in more socially-aware programs of political parties, but the grassroots empowerment of local communities to democratise the organisation of local administrations and businesses from within. An additional layer of social design initiatives is needed as a glue between the public sphere and traditional political parties. To demonstrate the efficacy of such integrating and transforming (multi-stakeholder) initiatives is one of our generation’s most pressing challenges.

Progress and prosperity do not come like a bolt of lightning from the top but depend on our personal initiative and ability to develop local contexts. Political frameworks will take on the new role to facilitate such initiatives, rather than fostering top-down social hierarchies guided by single-minded propositions. As many business models depend on taking advantage of disempowered groups, the question emerges how powerful exclusive groups can be motivated to change their modus operandi. This problem is even exacerbated when we consider spillover effects which are hard to quantify. While affluent nations consume most of the planetary resources and contribute to most of the per capita pollution, poorer nations pay the price by being subjected to foreign capital related corruption, floods, droughts and environmental degradation.

Image: Trash collectors in Cambodia. Picture credit Getty Images

Another limit to cooperative small-group social design initiatives lies in addressing large accumulations of capital as described in Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ which require being dealt with by political means. The philosophical and economic question is how super-wealthy elites monopolise resources at the expense of everybody else. As Piketty writes in his opus magnum “It is important to understand that a tax is always more than just a tax: it is also a way of defining norms and categories and imposing a legal framework on economic activity.” (Piketty 2014, p. 520). A normative understanding of socio-economic action that is based on people’s more tangible options for developing autonomy, supportive networks and competencies could replace the current model of Economy 3.0.

For the sake of maintaining the social contract, economic activity should serve the long-term ecological and socio-economic benefit of all, which defines the social-utilitarian aspect of Economy 4.0. The individual effort of activity needs to be rewarded and moderated in terms to how it proves to be of service to others, which describes the libertarian-meritocratic (client- and service-based) aspect of economic activity. As an example, recent discussions in Germany, where typical executive pay exceeds more than 50 times the salaries of ordinary workers, begs the question how excessive pay and bonuses are justified within a client-based context where elites should serve as a role model for the public good. How can people represent their group when they have disconnected themselves economically and socially from it in a significant manner and when they have widely abandoned sharing collective risks, liabilities and consequences? The international bailing out of failing banks by taxpayer’s money is a prominent example. Albert Bandura’s latest work on moral disengagement (Bandura, 2016), which investigates mechanisms of moral disassociation from systemic responsibilities, deserves to become a standard litmus test for monitoring corporate responsibility and accountability.

On the other hand, the oversimplified schemata of ‘capitalism versus socialism’ cannot regulate instances where the complexity of systems include multiple and competing types of nested social motivations. After all, consensus, by cooperation or by negotiation, implies legitimisation by internal audit (to serve ingroup fairness) as well as external responsibilities (to facilitate intergroup agreements). As we define the world differently with such an extended set of criteria to adjust to changed environmental conditions so changes our interpretation of progress. If we cannot make significant global progress happen within the next decades, nobody will.

Image below: G20 protesters in Hamburg, Germany

References

Anderson, K., & Kuhn, K. (2017).‘What the Health’ [documentary], A.U.M. Films & Media

Bandura, A. (2016). Moral disengagement: How people do harm and live with themselves. New York, NY: Worth Publishers

Piketty, T., & Goldhammer, A. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Women in IT: Where are the disconnects?

cs-womenPicture credit: Harvey Mudd College

While the emerging knowledge- and service industries of the 21st-century is a continuing discussion topic of public discourse, the minuscule percentage of women embarking on careers in IT is deeply troubling. The IT industry struggles to find enough applicants to fill open positions as women are losing out on a personal and societal level by not embarking on beneficial career paths, effectively excluding themselves from Economy 4.0.

Problem Definition

Across Western cultures, very few women choose careers in IT. According to a recent study conducted by COMPTIA (2017), girl’s consideration of IT jobs wanes with age. While in Middle School 27% of girls still consider a career in IT, this number dwindles to a meagre 18% in High School. Only 7% of girls consider a career as a programmer (versus 25% of boys) and only 3% imagine a career as a software developer (versus 23% of boys). In Germany, only 17,4% of new job applications in IT are women according to a recent study ‘Recruiting Trends 2017’. Among the top 1000 IT companies in Germany, this number comes down to 13,2% of female applicants, constituting IT as a highly male-dominated industry.

The cited reasons for the low uptake are manifold. Early childhood socialisation favours boys to be associated with technology as compared to girls. As a result of this stereotypical expectation which is supported by many parents, boys are more encouraged to explore technology and science as compared to girls. Many women also feel uncomfortable to work as a minority in an already male-dominated field. In the social sphere, there are too few female role models available to guide and mentor younger girls. Many schools offer only rudimentary IT classes that do not inform and prepare students adequately for a future career. At the workplace, reports of unequal pay, unequal career development options and widespread gender bias within IT companies keep many women from joining. On top, very little useful information appears to be provided to young women about the diversity of careers in IT in general. We cannot dream about things that we don’t know about.

Although the general ‘acupuncture points‘ to why women do not take up jobs in IT have been identified in numerous international surveys, obstacles have not yet been specified by more thorough empirical research including validated models. What specifically keeps girls and women from embarking on careers in IT? How do factors interact? Can we draw inferences across cultural contexts? To dig deeper and go beyond generalised gender statements, we need to take a look at some of the leading theoretical frameworks in educational sociology and psychology.

Approaches in Educational Sociology

Raymond Boudon’s approach follows, as an external methodology, a rational choice approach based on an individual and situated cost-benefit calculus. In our case, young girls and their parents evaluate the costs, payoffs and likeliness of succeeding in careers in IT. The question is if and how young women from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds make different educational decisions after finishing school or college as compared to women from academic- and well-off families. The data gained from studies on the more fragile joints of education systems can inform interventions and communication strategies based on the attitudes and ways of life within a specific social milieu or class. Rational choice theories such as Boudon’s are good at examining the joints of educational trajectories such as transitions from secondary to tertiary and from tertiary to university- or polytechnic education.

Pierre Bourdieu’s Cultural Deprivation Theory, by comparison, looks at the ‘habitus‘, internalised patterns of socialisation, dispositions, daily routines and the in situ constitution of life-planning. His complementary concept of ‘doxa’ refers to the attempt of social members to bring subjective cognitive convictions into congruence with given (objective) social settings. In psychology, Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Festinger, 1957) deals with similar conflicts of cognitive non-congruence and scenarios where issues such as forced compliance behaviour, decision-making and effort play a central role. In our case, we are interested to find out how habitus and doxa affect the motivation of young women to engage in IT.

Psychological Approaches

Regarding observational learning and learning from social role models, Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory can inform our problem. What are the characteristics of role models in IT that inform and motivate young women? Which are the key predictors provided by role models for a behavioural engagement in IT?

As a motivational theory, Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2012) offers a useful framework to identify the levels of personal autonomy, competencies and social relations in IT careers. As a motivational theory, SDT differentiates between extrinsic motivation (which is e.g., reward dependent) and intrinsic motivation which is self-sustaining. Analogously to Bourdieu’s notion of internalised life practice, it would be illuminating to examine to which extent life-planning, given a specific socioeconomic background, is constructed by more intrinsic or extrinsic types of motivation. There is an interesting conflict here: given that IT careers are based on the prerequisite of lifelong learning skills, an entirely extrinsic motivation orientation (e.g., a focus on above-average salaries and material benefits) that may prompt some women into taking up IT careers might not be the same motivation that is needed to sustain long-term growth within the field.

As in rational choice theories in sociology, we find similar approaches in psychology. Well-supported rational choice theories such as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991) examine attitudes towards planned behaviour, normative beliefs and perceived behavioural control analogous to Boudon’s framework. The theory’s assumption is that actors make rational, individual decisions in favour of personal benefit and estimate their chances at achieving payoffs.

Badura’s Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, 2002) focusses, by contrast, on the social context at hand and it researches the interplay between social modelling (such as by role-models and tutors), individual outcome expectations and the development of Self-Efficacy. The relevance of the latter for women’s interest in IT has been confirmed by previous studies. Social Cognitive Theory and Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) may also explain how the discrimination of women in IT, as illustrated by a recent example of open gender discrimination at Google, (a ten-page manifesto, by a software engineer, circulated internally and ranting against women’s capability in IT) discourages women to take up technology jobs. Why should women work in an environment psychologically hostile to them, objectively pays women less than men and progresses men faster than women in their careers, as claimed by many Google employees? Social Identity Theory can explain stereotype formation by the subsequent processes of social categorization (such as gender-based categorization), social identification (such as traits identified as distinctively male or female) and social comparison (such as concluding males more capable than women).

Strong Empirical Support

There appears to be solid empirical support for Cultural Deprivation Theory as well as the cited psychological theories, especially SDT and Social Cognitive Theory. Boys have earlier profound computer experiences, such as e.g., through computer games (Oosterwegel, Littleton, & Light, 2004) and display a more autonomous acquisition of technology as compared to girls. Fathers are reported to be stronger roles models for both male and female students (Turner et al., 2002). Girls tend to rate their computer skills generally far lower than boys (Young, 2000; McCoy & Heafner, 2004). Girls attend fewer computer classes and display lower self-confidence in the use of computers (Beyer et al., 2002; Durndell & Haag, 2002; Lee, 2003). Regarding the cultural value underlying IT, women in Applied IT “rated helping others as an important reason for choosing an IT major more often than did any other group.” (Organ et al., 2005, pg.20), suggesting a different set of underlying motivations for engaging in IT as compared to boys. Most of the recent studies such as COMPTIA (2017) and ‘Recruiting Trends 2017’ confirm findings of these earlier studies.

Graphic: Top Barriers identified by ISACA Study (2016). Workplace disadvantages have a significant negative correlation to IT enrollment by women. 

Defining the Acupuncture Points for Potential Studies

From a psychological perspective, there are at least three areas of interest that we could preliminarily define as a 3-factor model, following Bandura’s Triadic reciprocal causation model, consisting of the independent variables of  (a) social predictors, (b) workplace predictors and (c) intrapersonal predictors on the dependent variable of women to enroll in IT careers. As we know from the studies cited above, all of these factors influence women’s motivation to enrol in IT jobs. Under factor (a) items of interest are measures such as the availability of female mentors, female role models, early childhood socialisation towards technology and social milieu. Under factor (b) fall items such as gender bias/ gender fairness in the workplace, the perception of equal growth opportunities, equal pay as well as the prospect to work with other women and not only men. Under factor (c) items of interest might be tried-and-tested psychological variables such as the prevalence of traditional gender role beliefs, goal orientation (extrinsic versus intrinsic goal-orientation), control beliefs and attitudes towards IT. A working hypothesis as the basis for an Exploratory and Confirmatory Factor Analysis is sketched out below (Fig.1)

SEM Concept

Figure 1: The supervening working hypothesis for the factors predicting women’s enrollment in IT. We assume that social scaffolding, workplace support and intrapersonal competencies have an equal influence on women enrolling in IT jobs. Factor loadings of items would reveal in greater detail the more significant predictors.

More informative, from a social psychology perspective, would be multi group comparisons, e.g. between male and female students prior to applying for IT jobs (Study Design Option I – Differences between male and female profiles predicting engagement in IT careers) or between undecided female students and young women who have already embarked on a career in IT (Study Design Option II – Differences between female IT professionals and average female student population: Which factors predict enrollment in IT ?) in order to gain deeper insights on the most significant factors that keep women from joining careers in IT.

Another unresolved issue is if and how IT has been influenced by predominantly male concepts and values (Study Design Option III – Relation between IT, male constructs and values: Are IT constructs excluding female values and perspectives?). For example, current enrollment data suggests that women are more attracted to IT jobs that involve the motif of caring such as in biomedical research, environmental- or socioeconomic development. Which cultural values does IT represent and how is it related to gender constructs? Has IT been conceptualized, as suggested by Clegg (2001), as an obsessively masculine construct that lacks appeal to women? Ideological gender constructs of computing technology are no trivial matter. Clegg points out that most action-packed and competitive games have been designed and marketed by men for men. Computing has been widely associated in public discourse and media with military technology, cyber warriors and a competitive display of power – a technological machismo that few women find appealing and are able to identify with. Women, by contrast, have been marginalized in IT as secretaries, low-paid administerial workers or staff in online call-centers. New domains, such as in computerised lifelong learning, however, may offer a more fitting identification for many women.

Lastly, retaining female IT personnel and offering women long-term prospects in IT would be another relevant area of research (Study Design Option IV: How can employers retain female IT staff?). The outcomes of gender-based IT studies are useful for designing more efficient information campaigns, communication strategies, e-platforms, school- and college-initiatives as well as developing institutional policies for employers to motivate young women to join IT-related careers.

Conclusion

As Economy 4.0 embraces collaboration and cooperation, it opens the female notion of caring which appeared as a strong motif in all of the studies. From a caring female perspective, IT can be reformulated as a means to re-establish our connections to nature, to others and our future potentials. It is not so much that women have an issue with IT, but that IT has been widely cultivated and advertised as a predominantly male domain. New developments such as in online learning, computer science or AI development offer new role identification opportunities for young women.

The illustrated working hypothesis suggests that multiple factors predict the involvement of women in IT rather than a single argument. In addition, media images and stereotype clichées of the lonely nerd or socially deprived hacker are not helpful to any gender since IT relies heavily on the ability to work in teams. Instead, it would be more productive to develop cooperative spaces within IT where gender domination does not obscure the love for creating technology that is beneficial to all.

 

References

Ajzen, I. (1991). “The theory of planned behavior”. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 50 (2): 179–211.

Bandura, A. (2002). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (pp. 94-124). New York, NY: Routledge.

Beyer, S., Chavez, M., and Rynes, K. (2002, May). Gender differences in attitudes
toward and confidence in computer science. Paper presented at the annual
meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, IL.

Clegg, S. (2001). Theorising the machine: Gender, education and computing. Gender and
Education, 13, 307-324.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 85-107). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Durndell, A., and Haag, Z. (2002). Computer self-efficacy, computer anxiety, attitudes
towards the internet and reported experience with the Internet, by gender, in an
East European sample. Computers in Human Behavior, 18, 521-535.

McCoy, L.P., and Heafner, T.L. (2004). Effect of gender on computer use and attitudes of
college seniors. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering,
10, 55-66

Lee, A.C.K. (2003). Undergraduate students’ gender differences in IT skills and attitudes.
Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 19, 488-500.

Ogan, C., Herringg, S., Robinson, J.C. & Ahuya M. (2005). The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Gender Differences in Attitudes and Experiences Related to Computing Among Students in Computer Science and Applied Information
Technology Programs. Paper presented at the 2005 International Communication Association Conference, New York, NY

Oosterwegel, A., Littleton, K., and Light, P. (2004). Understanding computer-related
attitudes through an idiographic analysis of gender- and self-representations.
Learning and Instruction, 14, 215-233.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations?, 33, 47.

Turner, S.V., Bernt, P.W., and Pecora, N. (2002, April). Why women choose information
technology careers: Educational, social, and familial influences. Paper presented
at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New
Orleans, LA.

Young, B.J. (2000). Gender differences in student attitudes toward computers. Journal of
Research on Computing in Education, 33, 204-216.

Defining Human Agency: Towards an Interdependent Model of Human Autonomy

Jim Tsinganos

Illustration by  (IA Illustration Awards, 2015): Which is my authentic Self?

PDF Version: Defining Human Autonomy, Kompa, J., 2016

Introduction: Beyond money, what makes us truly happy and free?

How could I argue with a Nobel Prize winner? I admire Daniel Kahneman’s work, not only his contributions to behavioural economics but also his recent work on wellbeing and happiness. Kahneman demonstrated that high income improves the evaluation of life, but not necessarily emotional well-being (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010). On the others side, the lack of money can create considerable misery. I had three critical extending thoughts on his well-supported study. The first was that the investigation was limited to addressing individual well-being and life evaluation of a population. In collectivist cultures, for example, group identities and their social positioning play a significant role in perceived collective well-being, not merely income.

Secondly, instead of money we could place general lifeworld resources, e.g., access to healthcare, decent housing, childcare and education for the public. In cultures that offer high-quality public resources, such as e.g., Scandinavian countries, income inequalities are moderated and lesser income is not tantamount to sliding into poverty and misery.

The third thought was that what makes people happy or unhappy is equally dependent on the degree to which they are able to govern their lives, their degree of autonomy. Money is related, but only part of the story. Life satisfaction measures are limited to referring to outcomes that have accumulated over many years. Rational agency, by contrast, represents the ability to create desired futures and to enjoy access to options for making relevant life decisions. Challenges to our agency appear at every step of our biography. To find oneself in the driver’s seat of life appears equally important to well-being as income. People become increasingly unhappy the moment they are marginalised, disempowered and when they are forced against their will to deal with discriminating conditions, rather than creating their own. This Blog entry investigates human agency and its self-regulating structure. It asks about the critical key ideas that constitute autonomous human life.

Albert Bandura’s concept of an ‘Agentic Psychology’ (Bandura, 2006) and Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan & Deci, 2012) belong to the most influential approaches in contemporary psychology to position human autonomy at the core of scientific research. It is argued in the following that although current theory and research rest on valid intuitions and solid findings regarding human autonomy, an extended framework is required to offer a more socially-coherent understanding of human agency. By exploring the concept of autonomy proposed by philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, it is investigated how an intersubjective approach to autonomy can provide additional insights for psychological theory. It is argued that Habermas’ concept of human autonomy implies fundamental psychological competencies which cannot be conceptually separated from cognitive faculty when dealing with historically and culturally grown social identities.

Keywords: autonomous versus heteronomous social regulation, private autonomy, social autonomy, moral autonomy, accountable agency, authentic identity

1. Where our folk understanding of autonomy fails

People’s naïve understanding of autonomy entails that we can lead our own life according to our will, according to what we want for ourselves, free of material deprivation and independent of external obligations, governmental control and social pressure. This understanding of private autonomy, as it has been originally framed by Locke and Hobbes, is still the dominant view of modern liberalism and libertarianism.

Supporting the libertarian definition of autonomy as individual independence, Markus and Kitayama’s (1991) influential concept of group-independent (individualistic) versus group-interdependent (collectivistic) cultures defines that Western cultures promote individual independence and separateness of others, whereby Asian, African or Middle-Eastern cultures, prioritise family- and group obligations over individual freedom.

Ryan and Deci (2006) disagree with this idea vehemently and remark that by not differentiating between autonomy and individual independence, cultural relativists imply e.g., that women or Asians do not need autonomy. Their counter-argument is that fitting within a group, acting in accord with traditions or following parents is not a sufficient criterion for a lack of autonomy as long as people internally agree to care for others. The argument against a simple libertarian definition of autonomy (as the absence of compromising external constraints for the individual) can be expedited even further: if autonomy cannot make affirmative commitments to substantive social values, then it remains unclear how such position grounds any particular value commitments. Generally speaking, universal values such as the respect of others or the appreciation of socio-cultural scaffolding would be, counter-intuitively, excluded by a liberalist-libertarian understanding of human agency.

We can act for ourselves as individuals pursuing personal interests, but we can equally act by taking the interests of others wholeheartedly into consideration without compromising personal integrity. Depending on one’s cultural perspective, somebody’s individual freedom might be perceived as somebody else’s selfishness. Identifying autonomy narrowly with individual independence can to this extent not pass as a culturally unbiased perspective.

Another argument rarely considered when discussing individual liberties is the influence of internal disrupting factors on the self, such as anxieties, fears, personal vulnerabilities, mental disorders or pathological personality traits, leaving individual agency compromised. An unquestioned assumption of libertarian philosophy is the sanity and justified perspective of personal decision-making. But what if the individual proves manipulative, deceitful, prone to impulsive risk-taking or simply exercising poor judgment? Individual as well as collective agency are to this argument constructed neither unipolar autonomous nor heteronomous, but they co-exist as a system of mutual checks and balances.

Bandura (2006) addresses the issue of collectivist versus individualist perspectives more pragmatically by differentiating between individual, proxy and collective agency. Besides individual agency, proxy agency regulates cases of indirect control, e.g., when we act on behalf of others or acquire resources via others. In addition, collective agency underpins the fact that in today’s interconnected world we rarely act by ourselves, but within teams and under the moderating influence of larger groups. To limit autonomy exclusively to individual independence would, in the light of real-world interconnectedness and pervading globalization, not conclude relevant and meaningful theory.

2. Intersubjectivity as the key to understanding human autonomy

SDT as well as Bandura agree that strong interactions between individual and collective autonomy exist. Ryan et al. (2005) point out that we depend upon others who support autonomous regulation.  SDT has yielded much research investigating the inhibiting influence of socio-cultural systems on autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Autonomy, in SDT, is not defined by the absence of external influences, but by one’s assent to such inputs. Collective autonomy is experienced by processes of endorsement and decisive identification. Following the philosophical outlines by Heider (1958) and deCharms (1968), SDT insists on the principle of personal causation. Autonomy, literally, means self-governance in SDT and it rests on intrinsic motivation.  The critical question from a socio-cognitive perspective is if intrinsic motivation provides not just a necessary, but a sufficient account of personal autonomy. After all, if assent is an integral element of collective autonomy then an individual’s motivation must be equally based on good implicit or explicit reasons for such agreement. The question is if intrinsic motivation can be conceptualised devoid of cognitive agency, e.g., by solely and automatically following intuitive goals that seem to develop us as an authentic person, or in tandem with self-reflected awareness about intrinsically-motivating reasons.

In this context, SDT (Ryan, Kuhl & Deci, 1997) has developed a comprehensive model of motivation which explains the continuum of heteronomous and autonomous regulation. In SDT, motivation ranges on the scale from amotivation (impersonal) to external regulation (highly controlled), introjected regulation (moderately controlled), identified regulation (moderately autonomous), to integrated and intrinsic regulation, both latter types being highly autonomous. External regulation is better known from behaviourism under the term of operant conditioning (Skinner, 1953). It is argued in the following that integrated and intrinsic motivations, to be truly autonomous, require the involvement of metacognitive reasoning. This notion implies that an individual asserts herself to behave according to good reasons and is capable of evoking intrinsic motivation via acts of personal rationalisation.

Culturally-bound identities develop, as described in SDT, on a continuum between various types of heteronomous and autonomous social regulation. Christine Koorsgaard (1996) coined the term ‘practical identity’ representing this notion. Practical identity, which is governed by locally-grounded heteronomous and autonomous types of regulation, manifests peoples’ socio-cultural reflection on values and normative self-concept. Practical identity is in the following is referred to as ‘practical agency’.

An initial mapping of individual phenomenology to heteronomous versus autonomous regulation-types, largely congruent with SDT, is summarised in Figure 1. Intersubjectivity, within the presented coordinate system, implies that subjective internal motivations, reflections, desires, experience and conscience do not stand in isolation (or prior) to the social world, but are socially constructed. Agentic psychological experiences and processes ‘are in virtue of being elements of our interaction with others’ (Anderson, p.93).

defining autonomy

Figure1: Indicated in red are types of social regulation which are set within a coordinate system between the axis of autonomy versus heteronomy and individual versus social psychology. Autonomous regulation extends to the conscious recognition of outgroups, whereby heteronomous regulation deals predominantly with internal role beliefs to ensure ingroup coherence.

3. Bandura’s concept of agency and the question of free will

For Bandura (2006, 1977), the self is socially constructed through transactional experiences with the environment. Analogously to SDT, it is cognitive competencies that enable agency, namely intentionality, future-directed forethought, self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. Agency, for Bandura, is not represented by the metaphysical assumption of a ‘free will’, but by the ability to make causal contributions to the course of events. Bandura’s latter notion is a novel reply to reductionist biology and neuroscience who regard individual autonomy as an illusion created by the brain (Pinker, 2000). Following Bandura’s argument, even if mental processes were in fact fully determined by underlying brain processes, the probabilistic nature of physics would still allow for us to draw causal and conditional inferences to sequences of events. Reductionist arguments are to this extent not tangent and relevant to cognitive ability. Habermas’ argument resembles Bandura’s: if we assume that autonomous agency is defined as the ability to respond to socially constructed reasons, it is convincing to conceptualise human agency as a natural part of the social world.

Identity theory, the assumption that physical states are identical to mind-states, is more an academic proposition rather than a scientific theory. The problem of Identity Theory is that it is theoretically and practically impossible to prove that a person’s subjective experience equals corresponding ‘objective’ brain-states. Any methodology would require admitting a first person self-report (and all its uncertainties) as evidence to prove identity to an objective account, which would be self-contradictory to its truth proposition. To argue with Karl Popper, Identity Theory can, for this reason, not be methodologically falsified and therefore does not qualify as a scientific theory.

Alternatively, a more pragmatic and intuitive idea would be to understand the mind as the action that the brain (as a biological organ) performs. The brain performs the correlated action of mind, which, empowered by the resource of context-separated memory, is capable of remodelling neuronal connections, enabling both upward and downward causation between brain and mind. Unlike routinized minds, the mind can go offline and direct focus on mental content, away from environmental stimuli (Vierkant, 2013). By formulating mental content independent of external influences, we are endowed with the capacity to conceptualise competing mental models to make sense of the world. The latter is no trivial fact considering that heteronomous regulation can hinder and distort cognitive ability and learning.

Regarding reductionist hypotheses, research on human memory and underlying learning processes stand on solid ground and there are no reasons, rather than ideological, to reduce the complexity and richness of mental processes and their meaning towards a single-minded, convergent proposition.

4. Habermas’ five dimensions of autonomy

In his insightful introduction to Habermas’ concepts of autonomy, Joel Anderson (Fultner, 2011) explains the key ideas of an intersubjective account of autonomy by their absence. He writes “To lack political autonomy is to be subjected to illegitimate domination by others, specifically by not being integrated in an appropriate way in processes of collective self-determination.  To lack moral autonomy is to be incapable of letting intersubjectively shared reason determine one’s will. To lack accountable agency is to behave as a result of compelling forces rather than to act for reasons. To lack personal autonomy is to be unable to engage in critical reflection about what to do with one’s life. And to lack authentic identity is to have one’s claim to recognition vis-à-vis others get no update” (Anderson, p. 91).

The five mentioned key concepts of autonomy shall be explained in detail.

4.1 Socio-political autonomy in relation to private autonomy

For Habermas, private and public autonomy evolve reciprocally within social interaction. To this extent, they presuppose each other and emerge jointly. The intersubjective role of both types of autonomy is formulated stronger as compared to SDT or Bandura. Private autonomy does not only become difficult when public autonomy erodes and dissolves, as Anderson points out, it ceases to exist. Without a social framework that guarantees a person legal rights, impartial democratic institutions, provisions such as healthcare, education, opportunities to work, income, decent housing and general social inclusion, private autonomy cannot materialise. Private autonomy is in this light a fundamentally social construct, which resonates with Vygotsky’s assumption (1978) that individualism can only develop within adequate social scaffolding.

Habermas refers to these conditions as ‘lifeworld resources’. Private autonomy cannot practically be separated from the very social conditions and resources that enable and develop it. Ryan and Deci (2011) recognise the influences that social contexts exercise on inhibiting or developing autonomy and intrinsic motivation. To this account, it is of interest to psychology how individual and collective practical agency develops as either socially inclusive mindsets (in the form of solidarity, democratic ethos and public empathy for others) or socially exclusive concepts (in the form of privilege, the protection of group rights and social hierarchies), this is how lifeworld resource management is psychologically constructed.

The architecture of the lifeworld is not arbitrary but requires being rational to support its members developing and maintaining personal autonomy. This implies psychological prerequisites such as successful childhood socialisation, a functional public education system and independent media allowing for the open discussion and negotiation of societal problems.

grammar school

Picture above: Public education is a good example for the social scaffolding of individual autonomy by providing lifeworld resources. Image by The Portsmouth Grammar School

4.2 Moral autonomy

Moral self-determination is for Habermas indistinguishable to a determination by reason. Bandura elaborates from a psychological perspective “In the development of moral agency, individuals adopt standards of right and wrong that serve as guides and deterrents for conduct. In this self-regulatory process, people monitor their conduct and the conditions under which it occurs, judge it in relation to their moral standards and perceived circumstances, and regulate their actions by the consequences they apply to themselves” (Bandura, 2006, p.171, see also Bandura 1991). Self-regulation and monitoring are metacognitive competencies that involve the cognitive evaluation of circumstances.

Analogously, Habermas’ extends, beyond automatic self-regulation, to cognitive competence for the evaluation of goals, attitudes and behaviour. This entails not only reflections about mental content and how it is processed, but the ability to metacognitively question how our goals, attitudes and behaviour affect others. Under heteronomous influence, practical agency can effectively compromise cognitive capacity, e.g., when people follow ideologies or become obsessed with defending group privileges. In such cases, they typically demonstrate limited motivational and cognitive capacity to consider the perspectives of others.

This conundrum recognises Hegel’s argument against Kant’s deontology; put more simply, that morality is not a faceless abstraction of universal principles, but a rich tapestry of peoples’ conflicting desires, personal goals and motives, natural interests, beliefs, shared cultural values, behavioural patterns, emotive-cognitive limitations and underlying life experiences.

Without being able to reflect on the constraints that are imposed by practical agency, local identity cannot constitute moral status. Peoples’ intentions and behaviour might be justified from their personal perspective, they may be experienced as morally right in local context, but they may not have moral worth in the light of inherent intersubjective obligations and norms. Folk beliefs about moral legitimacy usually lack justification in every context, which is addressed in the light of meta-contextual and intersubjective validity.

This is why it makes sense to psychologically frame in-situ cognitive agency as a function of our practical agency, but defining socio-cognitive competence as the general ability to reason practical agency across contexts and integrating with the perspective of others. The latter empowers moral agency as the ability to take intersubjective perspectives and claims into consideration.

hooligans2

Picture above: The behaviour of enraged football hooligans is governed by group aggression as an example of heteronomous regulation. Perceived rivals are not only socially excluded, but intentionally harmed in the absence of cognitive capacity. Photo: AFP

4.3 Accountable agency

As a result of moral agency (the ability to reflectively respond to socially constructed reasons), we hold each other accountable to this extent. We decide whether somebody’s attitudes and behaviour is either praiseworthy or blameworthy, and we usually expect of others (as we do of ourselves) that we can justify our actions, that we know what we are doing. Since accountable agency is expressed by reciprocal social expectations, it has a normative character.  Without such accountability, responsibilities cannot be defined. It is no small matter if people only assume or think that they are responsible, or if they also feel that they are responsible, that they demonstrate a genuine motivation to translate thought into corresponding behaviour. We may call this ability executive moral agency.

Psychologically, there are limitations to accountability, such as e.g., in the case of mental disorders or learning disabilities. An assertion to reason can only be performed in the discursive exchange with other reason-holders. As concluded previously, practical agency empowers and limits cognitive agency, and subsequently in-situ moral agency. Like in the case of cognitive competence, moral agency requires being differentiated from moral accountability. A person might display limited moral agency, such as in the case of drunk driving, but is still morally responsible for her actions in the light of intersubjective reason.

On a wider scale, the major challenge of a technology-driven world is compounded by the fact that responsibilities are diluted and distributed over complex systems. This is why we differentiate e.g., between primary and secondary affected groups – those who are directly affected by new technologies, policies and social changes, and those who are indirectly affected. More than often, we are psychologically disconnected from the consequences of our actions. We may not realise that some of the products we buy depend on the exploitation of others far beyond our borders. Likewise, environmental disasters do not know national borders and secondary affected groups might span across generations, such as in the Bhopal gas tragedy. Beyond the psychological challenge of lifeworld-complexity, Bandura (2007) has exemplified ‘selective moral disengagement’ as a major topic in social psychology. Moral disengagement in the case of ecological sustainability is for Bandura defined by “reducing accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility; ignoring, minimising, and disputing harmful effects; and dehumanising and blaming the victims and derogating the messengers of ecologically bad news” (Bandura, pg.8). Bandura (2016) illustrates mechanisms of moral disengagement in complex societies in case studies involving the entertainment industry, the gun lobby, the corporate world as well as the social psychology of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Bhopal

Picture above: The Bhopal industrial disaster left 600,000 people exposed to toxic gases with an estimated death toll of 15,000. Even 30 years later, many women who were exposed have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children. Archive Photo: AP Photo/Sondeep Shankar

From the perspective of SDT, intrinsic motivation is required to exercise interventions promoting environmental and social sustainability. Since moral executive agency is grounded in autonomous, intrinsic motivation, contemporary social psychology needs to investigate and contextualize the psychological prerequisites enabling moral agency and moral executive agency.

4.4 Personal autonomy

Personal autonomy encompasses self-governance in the widest sense; to decide freely how we lead our life, how we bring up and educate our children, whom we love, how we plan our careers or how we contribute to society. Philosophical approaches tend to define personal autonomy by universal standards, such as internal cohesiveness, reasons-responsiveness and so on. Habermas’ concept avoids abstracted concepts and emphasises the socio-historical development of autonomous agency. To this argument, personal autonomy is defined by the competencies required to navigate through an increasingly complex and globalised world.

We have to make dramatically more decisions as compared to our grandparents and parents and have to deal with widely expanded options for decision-making and assuming the responsibilities that these decisions imply. In this context, SDT (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan 1995) has defined autonomy, competence and relatedness as core interrelating human needs. To avoid regress into heteronomy, personal autonomy depends on the acquisition of navigational competencies as much as it requires to be protected in terms of socio-political autonomy. In conclusion, we can conceptualise personal competence and social autonomy as the internal and external scaffolding required to develop human agency.

4.5 Authentic identity (Authenticity)

In Habermas’ intersubjective understanding of autonomous selfhood, authentic identity is not, as one may intuitively assume, expressed by one’s uniqueness based on assertive personal self-description. Authenticity is rather based on a two-stage process. The first step is to understand what and how one feels, thinks and behaves, while the second step tries to make sense of the experienced account. We attempt to render our personal existence intelligible, which entails the possibility to fail making sense of oneself. As such, we are naturally criticizable to ourselves. Authentic identity is neither based on blind self-assertion, nor decided by external majority vote but by entering an internal discourse attempting to figure ourselves out meaningfully, to make sense of ourselves.

Habermas links reflective self-description to public language when he elaborates:

“From the ethical point of view we clarify clinical questions of the successful and happy, or better, not misspent, life, which arise in the context of a particular collective form of life or of an individual life history. Practical reflection takes the form of a process of hermeneutic self-clarification. It articulates strong evaluations in light of which I orient my self-understanding. In this context the critique of self-deceptions and of symptoms of a compulsive or alienated mode of life takes its yardstick from the idea of a consciously guided and coherent course of life, where the authenticity of a life-project can be understood as a higher-level validity claim on an analogy with the claim to truthfulness of expressive speech acts.” (Habermas & Cronin, 1996, p.341)

Claims to authentic identity can, in this extended definition, only be made by living a life that supports the truthful expression of feelings. This excludes the possibility of inauthenticity, the construction of a flawed or narcissist self-portrayal which deviates from the good faith we would reasonably place into an honest self-account. Placing a self-monitored account performs an act of vouching which is processed either internally by one’s consciousness, or externally by one’s self-positioning in relation to loved ones and friends. As Anderson notes to this point “Vouching is a matter of issuing to others a guarantee that one can make good (or fail to make good on) by living up to one’s claim. (…) We can aspire, in private, to live up to certain goals, but we can vouch for ourselves only to others.” (Anderson, p.108)

Lastly, in avoidance of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), we try to align authentic identity with corresponding moral beliefs about the justification of supportive social conditions to serve personal autonomy. Personal identities based on heteronomous social regulation types experience authenticity in terms of fulfilling social obligations, complying to collective norms and executing moral agency in the light of group-interests. To this extent, group-interdependent identities are unable (or limited) in creating discursive internal accounts although the culturally embedded expression of feelings is genuine.

5. Human autonomy in the light of psychological theory

Lifeworld resources such as public education, a social market economy, reliable democratic institutions and fair public discourse are prerequisites to private autonomy. For this reason, social and private autonomy evolve reciprocally and in codependency. Since lifeworld resources are historically and culturally grounded, such resources are psychologically constructed within the spectrum of autonomous and heteronomous types of social regulation. In order to develop autonomy and relatedness, democratic institutions and organisations, such as people’s workplace, need to accommodate opportunities for personal growth and the fostering of competencies. Without the support of lifelong learning initiatives and the continued care for people’s professional development, to argue with SDT, social- and personal autonomy remain elusive, they are not empowered to carry agency in society.

From an individual perspective and in everyday life, private autonomy realises as practical- and authentic agency. Practical agency is linked to the ability to make sense of our social world, which entails questioning its fairness and openness, whereby authentic identity is linked to the ability to make sense of our autobiographic life. Both aspects of private autonomy are grounded in reason, the attempt to make coherent sense out of ourselves and the social world. Such an intersubjective and interdependent understanding of human agency is also compatible with established psychological frameworks such as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991) since social- and subjective norms and their underlying cognitive assessment are conceptualised as distinct factors evoking behavioural outcomes (see Figure 2).

The same applies to Triandis’ Theory of Interpersonal Behaviour (Triandis, 1997, 1980) by including social roles and self-concept as critical elements of personal agency and recognising the central function of affective motivation. By including role beliefs and habits, Triandis’ model acknowledges the culturally-heteronomous aspects of practical identity that rational choice approaches neglect. The concluding argument of an intersubjective approach is that by grounding human agency in socially-constructed reason, we become accountable to ourselves and to others. The subsequent psychological ability to take over responsibilities is a prominent theme in Bandura’s latest work, which investigates not only self-efficacy, but also the option of moral disengagement (Bandura 2006a, 2006b, 2007, 2016). 

Bandura’s ‘agentic‘ approach is compatible with Habermas’ sociological approach insofar he describes human behavior as a result of tradic codetermination, conceptualizing that the causes of human behavior are reciprocally rooted in personal (intrapsychic) determinants, environmental determinants, such as available life world resources, and behavioral determinants, such as socio-cultural mindsets and social practices (Bandura, 2008).

Summary

SDT as well as Bandura’s concept of human agency share much in common with Habermas’ account of intersubjective autonomy, in particular in regard to the interactions between the individual, culture and society. This comes to no surprise since intersubjectivity, as defined in sociology, and interpersonal relations, as defined in psychology, share the basic assumption that social spheres are created by meaningful interactions between people. Habermas’ approach extends psychological areas of investigations to the rational construction of the lifeworld and the management of lifeworld resources. Since social autonomy protects and empowers personal autonomy, empirical societal conditions for supporting autonomy cannot be methodologically separated from the constitution of personal autonomy. Bandura goes as far as to state that when looking at autonomy in de-contextualized isolation”Autonomous agency is an illusion.” (Bandura, 2016, p.24).

Personal autonomy is not only, as elaborated in SDT, a matter of subjective well-being, but it entails the acquisition of competencies to support personal self-rationalization as well as the development of social resources with others.  Moral agency and cognitive agency correlate and are measured against general cognitive competence to validate executive moral agency.

True moral autonomy encompasses the abilities of self-regulation and self-sanctioning, emotive-motivational as well as cognitive resources. A mere cognitive understanding of moral problems would be incapable of evoking motivation to elicit behaviour and prove epiphenomenal. In the worst case, the mere intellectualization of moral issues serves moral disengagement by formulating moral attitudes unilaterally, independent of underlying social causation and context.

Finally, moral agency, as it involves goal-directed behaviour, evokes accountable agency. The corresponding psychological question is how we are willing to assume responsibility for our actions and how people are not simply blind onlookers on their behaviour, as Bandura stated, but are capable of holding themselves and others accountable. Lastly, personal authenticity is viewed from an intersubjective perspective to how acts fit coherently into an overall life in order to self-support personal autonomy, e.g., in contrast to out-of-character behaviour. This entails the ability to vouch for oneself and one’s recognition by others to be willing and able to try. Authenticity concludes in the performative assertion that we are ultimately self-responsible for leading our life with others.

Autonomy is dependent on internal and external scaffolding to evolve. The internal scaffolding of private autonomy is composed by authenticity and moral agency, relating to a person’s intrinsic motivation, the external scaffolding is provided by available lifeworld resources and the rational construction of social domains. A holistic view of human agency requires to this argument to take all accounts into consideration: how we make sense of ourselves and of others, how we engage with others on a social level, how we construct shared lifeworld resources and how we hold each other accountable.

Human agency can be broadly conceptualised as the empowerment of freedom. This entails not only the freedom from oppression and constraint (as in a libertarian view) but also the freedom to create an order that offers equal opportunity to all (in terms of shared lifeworld resources), involving the self-directedness of life projects on individual account as well as the freedom to social inclusion and participation on a societal account.

An overview of an interdependent model of human agency is visualised in Figure 2.

human agency 3

Figure 2: An interdependent model of human agency. Private and social autonomy evolve in codependency via the institutionalisation of rational lifeworld resources. Practical agency and authentic identity develop as individualised aspects of socio-cognitive competence and self-rationalization. Moral agency and moral executive agency relate to the ability of self-regulation and self-correction.

 

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