FOSTERING AUTONOMY IN ADOLESCENTS: A MODEL OF
COGNITIVE AUTONOMY AND SELF-EVALUATION
Troy E. Beckert, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Utah State University
Paper presented at the American Association of Behavioral and Social Sciences
February 16, 2005, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Previous research dealing with adolescent autonomy has been focused on
two basic concepts. One concept has been behavioral autonomy, which
suggests the ability to act for one’s self. The second concept has been
emotional autonomy, which represents the ability to feel for one’s self.
Applications of these two constructs have provided little assistance to teachers
and professionals in encouraging adolescent prosocial behavior or in
discouraging adolescent delinquent behavior. A separate construct of
adolescent autonomy that deals with cognition has been somewhat overlooked.
This paper examines critical factors associated with a model of cognitive
autonomy suggesting the ability to think for one’s self. In addition, this paper will
outline a direction for the study of adolescent cognitive autonomy demonstrating
its potential for application and intervention.
The word autonomy derives from the Latin “autos” meaning “self” and
“nomos” meaning “rule”. Consequently, most operational definitions of autonomy
attempt to illustrate an individual’s ability to rule one’s self. Perplexingly, as
researchers have employed the idea of ruling one’s self, a uniform definition of
self has been evasive. The purpose of this paper is to outline various
approaches to the study of autonomy, to illustrate the limitations associated with
our current direction, and to propose an alternative model to strengthen our
course of inquiry as it relates to this construct. Traditional models of autonomy
have included behavioral and emotional while paying less attention to cognitive
Models of Autonomy
Behavioral autonomy involves a capacity to act for one’s self. Erik Erikson
was one of the first theorists to conceptualize autonomy (Erikson, 1963). For
Erikson, the key to successful progression through the second stage of
psychosocial development was the resolution of the crisis of autonomy versus
shame and doubt. According to Erikson’s psychoanalytic model, the task of self-
regulation associated with toddlerhood provides the child with a new sense of
freedom. Locomotion, self-feeding, and potty training highlight the quest for
autonomy. Thus, a sensitive period of task completion between the ages of one
and three influences a child’s autonomy. Accordingly, Erikson’s conceptualization
of autonomy could best be classified operationally as behavioral, meaning a child
is learning to “act” for him/herself. A child therefore becomes autonomous by
mastering certain self-regulating behaviors.
Many current models define autonomy as the ability to rule one’s self
through actions. They operationalize behavioral autonomy with concepts such
as self-reliance (Greenberger, 1984), functional independence (Hoffman, 1984),
self-regulation (Erikson, 1963; Markus & Wurf, 1987), competence (Deci & Ryan,
1987), personal control (Flammer, 1991), non conformity (Ryan, 1993), and
reflective autonomy (Koestner & Losier, 1996). Unlike Erikson’s model however,
more recent researchers position the development of behavioral independence in
middle childhood rather than in the younger age group.
Emotional autonomy represents an ability to feel for one’s self. The
century old debate between G. Stanley Hall’s philosophical camp who viewed
adolescence as a time of “storm and stress” and Margaret Mead’s philosophical
followers who described adolescence as a period of “calm and joy” continues to
manifest itself today within the conceptualization of emotional autonomy. These
two groups of researchers have been influential in pioneering the work on
emotional autonomy. Each one aligning at differing ends of the debate.
The “storm and stress” model of emotional autonomy, embraced by a
majority of modern researchers, portrays adolescents as deeply immersed in an
emotional struggle with an alliance to either parent or peer. Accordingly, young
adolescents become autonomous by learning to distance themselves emotionally
from their parents (Freud, 1969). Research dealing with emotional autonomy
most often focuses on early adolescence because of significant biological, social,
and emotional changes that occur during this period of development. The
hormonal “storm and stress” created within the budding adolescent during
puberty compels an adolescent to “grow up” and rely on outside rather then
Steinberg and Silverberg (1986) created a measure of emotional
autonomy. Using the Emotional Autonomy Scale (EAS) they sought to measure a
subjective sense of self-reliance. The assumption of these researchers was that
by distancing one’s self from parental influence an adolescent establishes
autonomy. Their instrument might more appropriately be represented as a
“detachment” scale rather than an autonomy scale (Noom, Dekovic, & Meeus,
2001). Although different labels were used, other researchers have examined
this construct. Two of the most notable were Hoffman (1984) and Frank, Avery,
& Laman (1988). Hoffman viewed emotional autonomy as a psychosocial
separation. He used terms like emotional independence and conflictual
independence to capture the essence of emotional autonomy. Frank viewed
early adolescent autonomy on an emotional continuum of connectedness and
Joseph Allen and his associates (Allen, Hauser, Bell, & O'Connor 1994;
Allen and Hauser, 1996; McElhaney & Allen, 2001; and Kuperminc, Allen, &
Arthur, 1996) have attempted to carry out a separate line of scientific inquiry to
assess adolescent emotional autonomy following more closely the “calm and joy”
transition described by Margaret Mead. Allen views emotional autonomy as
relatedness in opposition to distancing. Most of Allen’s recent research focuses
on the establishment of personal values and the ability to set goals. His ideas
allow for emotional autonomy, or the ability to feel for one’s self, while
maintaining continued relations with parents. In support of Allen’s model,
research dealing with the issue of attachment to a parent figure and autonomy
has convincingly demonstrated a strong correlation between securely attached
adolescents and adolescent autonomy (Hill & Holmbeck, 1986; Beyers,
Goossens, Vansant, & Moors, 2003). Allen classifies his research as a
combined cognitive and emotional dimension of adolescent autonomy.
Presumably, he includes cognition because of a goal setting component.
However, it is truly an affective dimension that he is assessing and therefore
would be more accurately classified as emotional autonomy. Others who have
followed similar lines of study are Bandura (1977), whose Social Learning Theory
included self-efficacy, and Grotevant and Cooper (1985), who assessed
adolescent individuation through mutuality and permeability.
A much less studied dimension of autonomy involves an individual’s ability
to think for one’s self. Many of the researchers mentioned above have attempted
to include some dimension of cognitive autonomy in their research models but do
not elaborate on its impact. Most often their focus has been on either goal
setting (Allen et al., 1994; Markus & Wurf, 1987; Noom et al., 2001) or decision
making and agency (Frank, 1988; Dworkin, 1988; Flammer, 1991; and Beyers et
al., 2003). These studies have provided scant understanding of the potential
utility of the cognitive component in autonomy. Methodologically, the cognitive
facet of autonomy proves most challenging. The observability of cognitive
constructs is problematic. Consequently, the only consensus within this realm of
inquiry is that if an adolescent is capable of reaching a level of cognitive
autonomy it would not occur until late adolescence, after formal operational
thought had been established.
Implications of Behavioral Autonomy
There are some advantages to couching autonomy in a behavioral
framework. The most salient of these is the relative ease of measurement.
Because observation of behavior is generally easier and clearer than
assessment of emotion or cognition, one can see why it has been a more popular
way to operationalize autonomy. In addition, behavioral models are also more
likely to appear successful in training applications. Using conditioning,
researchers and practitioners are generally able to demonstrate changes in
behavior with an appropriate administration of reinforcements. Thus, it appears
that autonomy can be fostered behaviorally. Lastly, age differences in behavior
are easiest to document. This implies that development of autonomy can be
recognized by examining changes that occur in the overt form of a person’s
motion over time.
These advantages must be considered in light of significant disadvantages
accompanying a behavioral approach to autonomy. A major criticism of this
behavioral model is that although evidence of independence can be observed by
an individual’s successful completion of tasks, there is a jump in logic in
classifying this independence as autonomy. A reinforcement associated with
autonomous behavior fosters further autonomous behaviors. White (1959) and
others (Harter, 1978) criticized the classification of independent behavior based
on extrinsic rewards. They insist that motivation for behavior cannot be
overlooked. Accordingly, true autonomy is the result of intrinsic rather than
Evidence of long-term effectiveness with intervention programs employing
behavioral autonomy is scarce. The recidivism rate of youth participants in
behavior oriented drug offender programs is quite high. Seemingly, although
offenders are taught to behave appropriately and autonomously, they are unable
to maintain their behavioral change over time. Many critics sight the dependence
on extrinsic rewards as a possible reason for this problem.
As mentioned earlier, this type of autonomy is often conceptualized in
younger children. However, most young children who learn certain independent
behaviors lack the ability to generalize to other situations. For example, a young
child who is capable of opening the house door with a key will commonly struggle
to figure out how to unlock a car door with a key.
Implications of Emotional Autonomy
Because researchers have been able to study to some degree emotional
autonomy in early adolescence, they have been able to remove the transparent
effects of external reinforcement associated with behavioral autonomy. Studying
autonomy from an emotional perspective involves an introspective quality that
seems necessary for true autonomy. In other words, most of the behavioral
autonomy shortcomings are addressed by assessing autonomy through affective
Although emotional autonomy provides introspective insight, there are
several important cautions to consider when relying on emotional autonomy as
an absolute indicator of independence. The most obvious concern is equating
detachment and autonomy. Transferring emotional dependence from parents to
peers or to a significant other does not constitute true autonomy. If a young
adolescent no longer depends, either emotionally or behaviorally, on parents but
reassigns reliance to another person, clearly, they are not demonstrating
Subjective, self-assessed feelings of independence do not render
observable characteristics of autonomy and should be interpreted cautiously.
Hence, in an effort to more clearly conceptualize autonomy, the observability of
behavior has been replaced with self-assessments of feelings. Although this
might be a more accurate portrayal of autonomy, the inability to accurately
measure feelings creates additional questions and concerns.
Toward Understanding Cognitive Autonomy
Given the shortcomings outlined above about behavioral and emotional
autonomy, it is difficult to conceive of why cognitive autonomy has not received
more attention. One possibility might be the methodological limitations
mentioned above. How can researchers accurately measure independent
thinking? Cognitive autonomy is not alone in this limitation. We can, without
difficulty, trace many unexplored phenomena within the behavioral sciences that
remain a mystery because we lack precision in measurement. For example,
David Elkind’s constructs of imaginary audience and personal fable make
intuitive sense to many but haven’t faired well empirically mainly because of
methodological shortcomings (Buis & Thompson, 1989). Our inability to measure
a construct should not be our sole reason for not attempting to gain
understanding of it. In fact, if we look closely at the implications of limiting
autonomy to a behavioral or an emotional model, it becomes evident that even if
we succeed in properly identifying a child’s place on the autonomy continuum
without cognition, we severely limit any meaningful application.
Will development within behavioral autonomy or emotional autonomy
foster prosocial behavior in generalized settings? Can we, through training within
a behavioral or emotional model, assist a young person to make good decisions
even if that person is exposed to risk taking behaviors? Answers to these
questions are complex. For the sake of this paper, we will simplify the matter by
looking at current trends in socially discouraged risk taking behaviors. Teenage
pregnancy and inappropriate drug use continue to plague our society. Although
teenage pregnancy has declined somewhat over the past decade, the United
States continues to have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the
developed world (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2003). Recreational and
experimental drug abuse have maintained high levels despite national efforts to
curb them (Johnson, O’Malley, & Bachman, 2003). By looking at all of the
models of autonomy as they have been explained in this paper, some insight for
future research might be gained.
Two issues merit discussion as we examine the growth of adolescent
autonomy. First, the pattern of autonomy presented in research seems counter
intuitive to development. There is an inherent contradiction built into the model.
Most people generally believe that human thought leads to feelings and those
feelings lead to actions. Although the actual process is far more complicated
than this (the reciprocity of all three components is markedly interactive) we can
postulate that the base interaction is somewhat linear. On the other hand, the
direction of autonomy development described above is exactly reverse.
Developmentally we grow autonomous from behavioral (childhood) to emotional
(early adolescence) and ultimately to cognitive (late adolescence).
Consequently, autonomy occurs from behavior to feelings to thought. So actions
proceed from thoughts to feelings to behaviors while autonomy proceeds from
behaviors to feelings to thoughts. Granted, if a child succeeds in behaving
autonomously she might feel more independent and ultimately think
independently. However, is such independence intrinsically motivated? If not,
then does it have the capacity to sustain independent thought across situations?
Evidence would suggest otherwise. One danger to this stage-like order of
cognitive development (autonomy) is that today’s adolescents and children face
dire consequences for decisions which they too often make behaviorally or
emotionally. David Elkind (2004) highlights this problem. “TV exposes children
to experiences they could never have had without it. But exposure is one thing,
and understanding it is another. Making experiences more accessible does not
make them any less confusing or any less disturbing.” Pg. 85.
The second point is that the development of autonomy seems to follow a
pattern that might have been healthy a generation ago but is not today. The
pattern begins with behavioral autonomy that leads to a rudimentary capacity to
self-regulate. Basically, an intrinsic motivation to behave will lead to an increase
in autonomy. Next, emotional autonomy stems from a developing faculty of self-
control. Finally, when an individual has achieved a higher order of thinking they
can introspect and implement self-evaluation skills. A generation ago a
developed sense of self-regulation and self-control might have been sufficient
preparation for adolescence. Given adolescent exposure to a variety of risk
taking behaviors today, we cannot delay teaching self-evaluation until late
The notion of allowing early adolescents to continue making decisions
about risk taking behaviors from a behavioral or emotional frame of reference is
troublesome. As a society we express a desire, through our choices of media
exposure, to have younger children “grow-up” more quickly today. However, we
do not provide them with the necessary tools to handle the decisions associated
with this increased exposure to life.
Self-evaluation is a powerful incubator and predictor of cognitive
autonomy. Hence we must abandon the logic that would have us believe that
external forces direct us to act (or think or feel) independently. Likewise, self-
regulation and self-control fall short of defining autonomy. Instead, we must
examine ways to enhance self-evaluation in an effort to promote autonomy.
From this perspective, we would deemphasize autonomy in early
childhood along with the belief that young children cannot think in a higher order,
therefore they cannot truly be autonomous. Rather, up to adolescence the child
is learning to act based on external cues. It might appear autonomous but it is
really a reaction to stimuli or an action in anticipation of a reward. Not until a
child can use some form of higher order thinking can he or she begin to think
autonomously. Ultimately to think for one’s self is the height of man’s potential.
Toward Studying Cognitive Autonomy
Rather than simply allowing this potential to evolve at its own rate, societal
changes have prompted a need to encourage and foster the development of
cognitive autonomy at earlier ages. To this end we must first attempt to study the
nature of cognitive autonomy empirically by examining the process and the
conditions associated with it.
A successful study of cognitive autonomy must answer two tenets specific
to the process. First, there must be something observable to measure. As
mentioned earlier, the very nature of a cognitive construct makes this difficult.
What can researchers observe that demonstrates an individual’s capacity for
self-governed thought? Drawing on previous work on autonomy and related
constructs, the areas of cognitive autonomy most observable might include
making informed, independent decisions (Lewis, 1981; Parker & Fischhoff,
2002), voicing educated and appropriate opinions (), weighing the influence of
others on thinking (Berndt, 1996), considering consequences (Trad, 1994), and
self-evaluating practices (Demetrious, 2003). Of these, decision making and
self-evaluation skills present the most promise for observation and thus would be
the most helpful choices for fulfilling the first tenet.
In addition to being observable the process must identify the product as
unique to cognitive autonomy. Because all types of autonomy are interrelated, it
would be impractical to set the bar with such precision. Nonetheless, we should
be able to conclude to some degree through scientific inquiry, that what we
observe to be cognitive autonomy is mostly attributable to cognition and not to
behavior or emotion. Self-evaluation is the best match for this task. The unique
personal conditions associated with self-evaluation include an internal locus of
evaluation and some capacity for higher order thought processes. Thus, by
observing the constructs of decision making, opinion voicing, influence weighing,
consequence considering, and self-evaluating we initiate a distinction between
individual capacities to think autonomously. By focusing our intervention
strategies on self-evaluation skills we can measure individual increases in
In the current climate of adolescent development we need to go beyond
the widely used measures of autonomy which address behaviors and emotions.
As Kegan (1994) outlines, ultimately our expectations for adolescents will not be
satisfied if they act independently. Likewise our expectations will not be satisfied
if they become emotionally independent. The only area of independence for
adolescents that will both satisfy adults and aid adolescents in making informed
decisions is an ability to think for themselves.
An effort to study this construct independently of the other facets of
autonomy could produce a clear picture of how cognitive autonomy develops and
how we might foster that development. There are specific areas within cognitive
autonomy that can be monitored in its assessment. These include making
informed, independent decisions, voicing educated and appropriate opinions,
weighing the influence of others on thinking, considering consequences, and self-
evaluating practices. Of these variables, decision making and self-evaluation are
the most observable. Once we have assessed cognitive autonomy, self-
evaluation may prove to be the most promising in application. If we can facilitate
self-evaluation skills in adolescents we might be able to facilitate autonomy.
Additional research is needed to further understand cognitive autonomy.
Technology has reduced many methodological concerns of the past and there
are more opportunities and greater potential today to evaluate a cognitive
construct. Although cognitive autonomy will always require some subjective self-
analysis, when connected to self-evaluation we can include other assessments
that might triangulate our measure to help us more fully understand this construct
and foster a broader understanding of adolescent autonomy.
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