Choose to Move: The Motivational Impact of Autonomy Dupport on Motor Learning

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Numerous studies in the motor learning domain have demonstrated learning advantages of self-controlled practice relative to yoked conditions. In separate lines of evidence in the social-psychological literature, findings show that providing participants with task-relevant autonomy support or minor incidental choices can result in superior outcomes when compared with conditions that thwart autonomy or do not offer choice. We hypothesized that motor learning could be enhanced by providing learners with choices – even if those choices are unrelated to task performance. In Experiment 1, two groups of participants practiced a golf putting task. While one group (the choice group) was able to select the color of golf balls (white, yellow, or orange) to be used in each upcoming block of 10 trials, participants in the second group (the yoked group) were provided with the same colored golf balls their choice-group counterparts had chosen. The results of a 24-h delayed retention test indicated significantly greater putting accuracy for the choice compared with the yoked group. Experiment 2 went one step further by asking choice group participants for their preferences regarding two issues unrelated to the practice task (balancing on a stabilometer): (1) which of two subsequent tasks (coincident timing or hand dynamometry) they wanted to perform and (2) which of two prints of paintings by Renoir they thought the investigator should hang on the laboratory wall. Yoked group participants were simply informed about which task they would perform afterwards and of which painting the experimenter would put on the wall. Balance learning was significantly more effective in the choice group on a retention test. Thus, self-controlled practice conditions can influence motor learning without providing task-relevant information, content, or strategic learning advantages. Self-controlled effects in motor learning may be motivational in nature, attributable to satisfaction of fundamental autonomy needs.