September 13, 2009

Voluntary or involuntary?

In solution-focused coaching and therapy there is the distinction between voluntary and involuntary clients. Aristotle (384BC-322BC) was the first philosopher who write about that distinction and he showed it is not always easy to distinghuish one from the other.


  1. I think voluntary has a number of shades of meaning because our sense of conscious will is a grand simplification of how decision making really happens.

    The biggest distinction is whether we think voluntary means we aren't being forced, or whether it means we are controlling the process. The difference is subtle but important.

    One sense is that we feel we could have (reasonably) decided otherwise, so it was voluntary. This is probably closest to the meaning in the story in the clip.

    Another sense of voluntary is whether we perceive we can intervene at all in the decision process, whether our "self" is perceived as controlling things.

    If the decision process seems automated with no point that "we" can intervene, it seems involuntary. Reflexes are involuntary in this sense. Hypnotic suggestion responses are perceived as involuntary in this sense as well, although this is partially illusory and has to do with how our "self" is re-interpreted by shifting attention.

    So involuntary either means that we feel that circumstances conspired to constrain our decision making, which invokes the idiosyncrasies of decision processes as in the captains wife story ... or it means that we feel ourself to be removed from the proceedings, which invokes the idiosyncrasies of attention and self-regulation.

    Both senses illustrate that "voluntary" is actually a fairly ephemeral idea requiring all sorts of conditions to be just right. The vast majority of what we do is probably involuntary in the sense that we don't feel we are directly controlling it, but voluntary in the sense that we feel we could have done otherwise, that we could have intervened in the decision process.

    Whether we really could have done differently depends on how you think of the "we." Our intuitions about the self that does the controlling of voluntary action is a huge simplification of very complex activity.

    I think this is why experiments that try to intervene closely in the decision process show such weird effects, such as Libet's famous experiment, hypnotic suggestion, and others of a similar nature. Dan Wegner has a nice collection of these effects in his book on the illusion of conscious will.

  2. Hi Todd,
    This reflection triggers me to think about the following. More an more I am beginning to be sensitive to how the solution-focused approach of coaching (or counseling, of therapy, etc) is an intervention approach in which the perceived autonomy of the client is supported and enhanced. When using the distinction voluntary/involuntary, it may be helpful apply perceived autonomy on three aspects:
    1) Autonomy with respect to entering coaching. Does the client feel he had a choice to start with the coaching process?
    2) Autonomy with respect to what is going on during the coaching process. Does the client feel he has choice about and control of what is discussed and how it is discussed?
    3) Autonomy with respect to terminating the coaching process. Does the client feel he controls when enough has been done and when the coaching can stop?
    SF does all kinds of things, often very subtle but also very directly to stimulate the perception of the client that he is autonomous with respect to all three. And not only the perception, SF is enhancing the actual autonomy of the client with respect to all three.
    I have little time now, but I’d love to write a bit more about this soon.

  3. @Todd: great point: ""voluntary" is actually a fairly ephemeral idea requiring all sorts of conditions to be just right."
    As I mentioned to Coert, too, I really loved DAn Wegner and to me he found a way out of the free will dilemma.

    @Coert: looking forward to reading your thoughts on the matter.

    On a more pragmatical note, going back to your post and the distinction between voluntary vs. involuntary: I apply a veru simple but effective "razor". If they pay themselves, they are voluntary. If somebody else (a business, organization or whatever) pays for the coaching, then they are involuntary.

  4. Hi Paolo, I must reread Dan wegner because I forgot what his point was..

  5. What I got from Wegner:

    1. Conscious will is a useful illusion that forms the ground floor of all useful self-psychology. This useful illusion is essentially what makes us human.

    2. It is not an illusion because we have no will, it is an illusion because the "we" obscures most of what is going on underneath.

    3. The illusion is very subjective. It shifts dramatically under different conditions, from perceiving ourselves as having almost unlimited freedom, to perceiving ourselves as having no options, even under the same physical conditions.

    "Sometimes how things seem is more important than what they are ... it seems to each of us that we have conscious will. It seems we have selves. It seems we have minds. It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do. Although it is sobering and ultimately accurate to call this an illusion, it is a mistake to conclude that the illusory is trivial. On the contrary, the illusions piled atop apparent mental causation are the building blocks of human psychology and social life. It is only with the feeling of conscious will that we can begin to solve the problems of knowing who we are as individuals, of discerning what we can and cannot do, and of judging ourselves morally right or wrong for what we have done."

    Wegner's model:

    The experience of conscious will arises when a person infers an apparent causal path from thought to action. Neither of these actual causal paths are present in the person's consciousness. Both thoughts and actions arise from unconscious processes.

    Conscious will is experienced as an apparent (and not real) causal path from unconsciously produced thoughts to unconsciously produced actions.

    Action is experienced as voluntary when the thought has certain properties about the action:

    1. priority -- Cause precedes effect in a time-critical manner. If the the time relationship feels wrong, we don't infer that we caused something to happen.

    2. consistency -- Cause and effect are related by our existing understanding of causality. If the effect seems inconsistent with how we think things behave, we don't feel that we caused the result.

    3. exclusivity -- Other possible causes can compete with our sense of voluntary action so that we don't infer that we caused it. If other possible causes are more salient, we experience the event as uncaused by ourselves.

    The interesting thing about Wegner's presentation is the use of experiments that demonstrate each of these properties and what happens when they are violated.

    Although Aristotle's example is very interesting, the case of posthypnotic suggestion is perhaps even more so. People experience themselves as acting voluntarily in a situation even though outside observers would say that there action was caused by the previous suggestion. A critical influence on their decision process (the suggestion) was unavailable to their thought process when they made the causal inference about why they acted as they did.

    For someone to perceive their actions as voluntary, emphasize the properties that allow them to draw that inference, and hide the competing causes.

    Consider also the opposite case, of experienced non-volition in hypnosis. Through an "induction" or other process, we create an expectancy in someone's mind of how they will act, and then help them avoid taking responsibility for it by redirecting attention. Then their own actions seem uncaused by them!

    These are just extreme examples, our sense of voluntary and involuntary is guided by expectancy and inference of causation over a wide range of conditions.

  6. To get a sense of the general model, in case the details are confusing, think of two systems: a behavior generator and an interpreter.

    The interpreter system acts like a virtual reality simulator. The simulator contains our sense of what is voluntary. By various inference rules, we determine within the simulator what "we" are and what "we" caused to happen. It is then used to help guide subsequent decision making.

    The point critical to the model is that these two systems are separate but are linked in indirect ways. We can cause things to happen in the behavioral system by things that happen in the interpreter, and we can infer things within the simulation from observing the outcomes of the behavior generator.

    Although simplistic, I think this model captures some very important aspects of human volition.

  7. Extremely interesting. Definitly something for me to get back to.

  8. Todd,
    thanks for the very exhaustive review of Daniel Wegner's book.

    To me, "The illusion of conscious will" in a nutshell: conscious will is the emotion of authorship (following the criterias you summarize), a "cognitive emotion", like the feeling of knowing, the feeling of familiarity.

    I liked in the book all the research presented re involuntary actions: ideomotor phenomena, hypnotic trances, and so on. I also liked the distinctions made about free will (as a force, as an experience...). And of course the key distinction you point out: experiencing will is different from the actual causation of the action.

    Your model (behavior generator + interpreter) is great! It could be expanded: free will (interpreter), behavior and the third variable, the behavior generator!


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner