Action, Volition & Agency


The study of human actions has traditionally concentrated on understanding how stimulus-driven actions occur. For example, when a traffic light turns green, a foot movement must be made in order to move forward. Years of research on these types of action have provided a fairly rich understanding of the mechanisms and brain areas that mediate stimulus driven action. Unfortunately, the study of intentional, or volitional action (actions made in the absence of any obvious external prompt) has been somewhat neglected. There are several fundamental questions relating to volitional action including: gaining a better understanding of whether intentions play a causal role in behaviour (and related issues of conscious free-will), determining how the brain flexibly switches between internally driven actions and actions that must be made in response to environmental imperatives and how the feeling of being in control over our actions emerges – the so called sense of agency.


The feeling of being in control of the actions we make is a fundamental part of human experience. At least two forms of agency experience are possible. The first is a low level, perhaps pre-reflective form of agency - the kind that we experience most of the time in our daily lives. For example, when I hit key on piano and a note sounds, I just "know" I was the actor that caused the sound to occur. I don't typically stop and deliberate about the fact that it was me who caused the sound, I just know it. On the other hand, if someone asks "who hit the piano key?" I would have to answer that it was me. This is a higher level 'report' of agency. Little is known about how the sense of agency (both low and high level types) arises in humans and what the relationship between them is. We do know that various disorders have an adverse effect on agency, and therefore, understanding agency more fully could have implications for developing treatments for disorders of agentic experience in the future (e.g., schizophrenics sometimes have an abnormal sense of agency).


Our research on volition and agency


In our lab, we are interested in understanding the neurocognitive basis of intentional actions and the mechanisms responsible for producing the sense of agency. We address these issues in myriad ways including assessing both low and high levels of agency experience, determining the personal and situational factors that affect agency experience and investigating how agency is experienced in dyadic or group actions. We assess low level agency by investigating the "intentional binding effect" - a temporal illusion in which people estimate the onset times of thier actions and the effects caused by their actions to be closer together in time than they really are. High level agency is typically assessed via self-report measures indicating how "responsible" an individual feels for producing a certain outcome. Our work on dyadic and group action addresses how agency experience is modulated by a person's role in a group - for example, whether the person was a leader or a follower, or whether the person took active part in producing an outcome, or played a more passive role. These experiments will shed light on basic mechanisms underlying the experience of important real-life scenarios such as those experienced by military personnel, athletes, dancers and others who engage in joint and group behaviour.