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DanielM.

Wegnerand Thalia Wheatley


University of Virginia

The experience of willing an act arises from interpreting ence suggests that all behavior can be ascribed to mecha-
one's thought as the cause of the act. Conscious will is thus nisms that transcend human agency.
experienced as a function of the priority, consistency, and
exclusivity of the thought about the action. The thought The Experience of Will
must occur before the action, be consistent with the action, Consciouswill is an experiencelike the sensationof the color
and not be accQmpanied by other causes.An experiment red, the perception of a friend's voice, or the enjoyment of a
illustrating the rble ofpriority found that people can arrive fine spring day. David Hume (1739/1888)appreciatedthe will
at the mistaken b(!liefthat they have intentionally caused an in just this way, defining it as "nothing but the internal
action that in fatt they were forced to perform when they impressionwe feel and are conscious of, when we lawwingly
are simply led to think about the action just before its give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of
occurrence. our mind" (p. 399). Hume realized that the will, like causal
force more generally, is not a thing that inheres in objects or
people, but rather is a perception that follows from the con-
onsciouswill is a pervasivehumanexperience.We stant conjunction of events:
all havethe sensethat we do things, thatwe cause
Somehaveasserted,thatwe feel an energy,or power,in our own
our acts, that we are agents.As William James mind. ...But to convinceus howfallaciousthis reasoningis, we
(1890) observed!"the whole sting and excitementof our needonly consider,thatthe will being hereconsider'dasa cause,
voluntarylife. ..depends on our sensethat in it things are has no more a discoverableconnexionwith its effects,than any
really beingdecidedfrom one momentto another,and that materialcausehas with its propereffect....In short,the actions
it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged of the mind are,in this respect,the samewith thoseof matter.We
innumerableagesago" (p. 453). And yet.the very notionof perceiveonly their constantconjunction; nor can we ever reason
the will seemsto contradictthe core assumptionof psy- beyondit. No internal impressionhas an apparentenergy,more
chological science. After all, psychologyexamineshow than externalobjectshave. (pp. 400-401)
behavior is caused by mechanisms~e rattling off of The person experiencing will, in this view, is in the
genetic,unconscious,neural,cognitive, emotional,social, same position as someone perceiving causation as one
and yet other chains that lead, dully or not. to the things billiard ball strikes another. Causation is inferred from the
peopledo. If the1 things we do are causedby suchmecha- conjunction of ball movements, and will is inferred from
nisms, how is it. that we nonethelessexperiencewillfully the conjunction of events that lead to action. In the case of
doing them? billiard balls, however, the players in the causal analysis
Our approachto this problemis to look for yet another are quite simple: one ball and the other ball. What are the
chain-to examinethe mechanisms'that producethe expe- items that seem to click together in our minds to yield, the
rience of consciouswill itself. In this article,we do this by perception of will? One view of this was provided by
exploring the possibility that the experienceof will is a
result of the samementalprocessesthat peopleuse in the
perception of c~usalitymore generally. Quite simply, it Editor's note. DeniseC. Park servedas action editor for this article.
may be that people experienceconsciouswill when they
interpret their own thought as the cause of their action. Author's note, Daniel M. Wegnerand Thalia Wheatley,Depanmentof
This idea meansthat peoplecanexperienceconsciouswill Psychology,University of Virginia,
quite independentof any actualcausalcoimectionbetween This researchwas supportedin part by Nationailnstitute of Mental
Health Grant MH 49127, We thank Jerry Clore, Jean Goddard, John
their thoughtsandactions(cf. Brown, 1989;Hamad,1982; Monahan,Bobbie Spellman,Dan Willingham, and Tim Wilson for com-
Kirsch & Lynn, 1997; Langer,1975;Libet. 1985;Spanos, mentsand help in developingtheseideas; Jay Meyers and John Nessel-
1982; Spence,1996). Reductionsin the impressionthat roadefor statisticalconsultation; and Kelley Chin, Ling Hua, Nick Red-
thereis a link betweenthoughtand actionmayexplainwhy ing, Cheri Robbins,Melissa Rogers,SoumyaSathya,TaraWegener.and
DametriaWright for their assistancewith the research.
peoplegeta senseof involuntarinessduring motorautoma- Correspondenceconcerning this article should be addressedto
tisms,hypnosis,and somepsychologicaldisorders.Inflated DanielM. Wegner,DepanmentofPsychology,Gilmer Hall, Universityof
perceptionsof tbis link. in turn, may explain why people Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22903. Electronic mail may be sent to
experienceconsciouswill at all-when psychologicalsci- dwegner@virginia.edu.

480 July 1999. American Psychologist


Copyrighll999 by the American Psychological Association. Inc. (KX)3~XI99/$2.00
Vol. 54. No.7. 480-492
arm whenin fact someothercauseis raisingit. So thereis nothing
in the experienceof acting that actually guaranteesthat it is
causallyeffective. (p. 130)
In essence,then, this is an example of the basic disconnec-
tion between mental process and the perception and verbal
report of that process. As Nisbett and Wilson (1977) have
observed, the occurrence of a mental process does not
guarantee the individual any special knowledge of the
mechanism of this process, and instead it may be that the
individual commonly uses a priori causal theories to ac-
count for his or her own psychological operations. The
conscious will may arise from a theory designed to account
for the regular relationship between thought and action.
The possibility that the conscious will does not reflect
an actual causal link has been captured in several research
findings. Perhaps the most compelling are Libet's (1985)
studies of the role of unconscious cerebral initiative in
voluntary action. He took advantage of the finding that a
brain readiness potential (RP), a scalp-recorded slow neg-
ative shift in electrical potential, begins up to a second or
Daniel M. more before a self-paced, apparently voluntary motor act
Wegner (Kornhuber & Deecke, 1965). In spontaneous,intentional
finger movement, Libet found that this RP preceded the
movement (measured electromyographically) by a mini-
Ziehen (1899), who suggested that thinking of self before mum of about 550 milliseconds. This finding by itself
action yields the sense of agency. He proposed that "we indicates only that some sort of brain activity reliably
finally come to regard the ego-idea as the cause of our precedes the onset of voluntary action. The further step
actions becauseof ~tsvery frequent appearancein the series Libet took was to ask participants to recall the position of
of ideas preceding each action" (p. 296). Current evidence a clock at their initial awareness of intending to move their
indicates that self-attention may indeed be associated with finger. The awareness of intention followed the RP by
perceived control or responsibility for action (Duval & about 350-400 milliseconds, even when adjustment was
Wicklund, 1973; Gibbons, 1990), but this effect seemsto made for the time it took people to monitor the clock. So,
be a general feature of a more specific process. although the conscious intention preceded the finger move-
This specific process is the perception of a causal link ment, it occurred well after whatever brain events were
between one's own thought and action. It makes sensethat signaled by the RP. These findings are compatible with the
we would tend to see ourselves as the authors of an act idea that brain events cause intention and action, whereas
primarily when we had experienced relevant thoughts conscious intention itself may not cause action.
about the act at an appropriate interval in advance, and so Another relevant study investigated voluntary finger
could ipfer that our own mental processeshad set the act in movement that is accompanied by actual causal forces of
motion. Actions we perform that are not presaged in our which the individual is unaware. Brasil-Neto, Pascual-
minds, in turn, would appear not to be caused by our minds. Leone, Valls-Sole, Cohen, and Hallett (1992) exposed par-
In essence,then, this view suggestsa connection between ticipants to transcranial magnetic stimulation of the motor
what Michotte (19(j3) identified as the two forms of con- area of the brain as the participants chose whether to move
scious evidence wt have for the causality of self in any their right or left index finger. Although participants
showed a marked preference to move the finger contralat-
action: "The first i$ our ability to foresee the result before
eral to the site stimulated, particularly at short response
it actually takes pl4ce, the second the presence of a feeling
of 'activity' " (p. 10). The feeling of activity may derive times, they continued to perceive that they were voluntarily
choosing which finger to move. This study did not include
from the perception of our own foresight.!
The important point in this analysis is that the will is
not a psychological force that causes action. Rather, as a
1 The idea that we can sense our activity directly has been investi-
perception that res~ts from interpretation, it is a conscious
gated in the study of muscle sense. This literature indicates that the
experience that ~y only map rather weakly, or perhaps
sensation of action effort arises from a combination of inputs, including
not at all, onto th~ actual causal relationship between the efference (signals from brain to muscles) and afference (signals from
person's cognitioniand action. Thus, as Searle (1983) has muscles, joints, vision, and other peripheral sites to the brain; cf. Jean-
nerod, 1997; Scheerer, 1987). However, because conscious will can be
put it,
experienced for purely mental activities, such as thinking or concentrat-
It is always possible l1latsomething else might actually be causing ing, just as surely as it is for physical movement, any analysis of the
the bodily movement we think the experience [of acting] is sensations of muscle activity cannot be the full answer to the question of
causing. It is always possible that I might think I am raising my how we experience conscious will.

July 1999. American Psychologist 481


processes give rise to conscious thought about the action
(e.g., intention, expectation), and other unconscious mental
processes give rise to the voluntary action.2 There mayor
may not be links between these underlying unconscious
systems (as designated by the bidirectional unconscious
potential path), but this is irrelevant to the perception of the
apparent path from conscious thought to action. There need
be no actual path here, as it is the perception of the apparent
path that gives rise to the experience of will: When we
think that our conscious intention has caused the voluntary
action that we find ourselves doing, we feel a senseof will.
We have willfully done the act.
The degree of correspondence between the perceived
conscious will and the actual mechanisms linking thought
and behavior is, of course, an essential problem in its own
right, the topic of intriguing theorizing (e.g., Brown, 1989;
Dennett, 1984; Libet, 1985; Spence, 1996). But the degree
of conscious will that is experienced for an action is not a
direct indication of any causal link between mind and
action. Rather, our analysis suggests that conscious will
Thalia results from a causal illusion that is the psychological
Wheatley equivalent of the third-variable problem in causal analysis.
We can never be sure that A causes B, as there could always
be a third variable, C, that causes both of them. In the same
sense, we can never be sure that our thoughts cause our
a detailed report of how the experience of voluntariness actions, as there could always be unconscious causes that
was assessed,but it is suggestive that the experience of will have produced them both. The impression that a thought
can proceed independent of actual causal forces influencing has caused an action rests on a causal inference that is
a behavior. always open to question-yet this impression is the basis of
There are a variety of other findings that lend them- the experience of will.
selves to similar interpretations. The striking absence of
the experience of will in the case of motor automatisms Sources of Experienced Will
such as table-turning, Ouija-board spelling, automatic Imagine for a moment that you are in a park, looking at a
writing, pendulum divining, and the like (cf. Ansfield & tree. It is a windless day, and yet you get the idea that a
Wegner, 1996; Carpenter, 1888; Spitz, 1997; Wegner, in particular limb you are gazing at is going to move at just a
press; Wegner & Fuller, 1999), for example, suggests certain moment. Then it does. Zowie. You look away and
that there are circumstances that can produce actions then a bit later you look back at the limb ~d think it is
with all the signs of voluntariness-but that nonetheless going to move again-and dam it, the thing moves again
feel unwilled. There also exist neuropsychological just in the way you thought it would. At this point, you
anomalies in which people perform voluntary actions would prtIbably have the distinct feeling that you are some-
while reporting no intention or feeling of will. In the how moving the limb. With a tree limb, of course, all this
case of alien hand syndrome, for example, a person may would be quite strange, but in fact, this is the very position
experience one hand as acting autonomously, often at we are in with regard to our own limbs, not to mention the
cross purposes with conscious intention. Banks et al. rest of our bodies and even our minds. We get ideas of what
(1989) reported such a patient whose "left hand would they are going to do, and when we find that these doings
tenaciously grope for and grasp any nearby object, pick actually occur, we perceive that we have willed the actions.
and pull at her clothes, and even grasp her throat during There are important limits to this effect. If the magic
sleep. ...She slept with the arm tied to prevent noctur- limb moved before we thought of it moving, for example,
nal misbehavior. She never denied that her left arm and there would be nothing unusual and we would experience
hand belonged to her, although she did refer to her limb no senseof willful action. The thought of movement would
as though it were an autonomous entity" (p. 456). The simply be a memory or a perception of what had happened.
sense of will, in short, is a variable quantity that is not If we thought of the tree limb moving and then something
tied inevitably to voluntary action-and so must be different moved (say,a nearby chicken dropped to its knees),
accounted for as a distinct phenomenon.
A model of a mental system for the production of an
experience of conscious will that is consistent with these 2 Voluntary action is defined here not in tenus of perceptionsof
various findings is shown in Figure 1. The model represents voluntarinessbut insteadas it is in the animalliteratUre-as behaviorthat
the temporal flow of events (from left to right) leading up can be initiated or inhibited in responseto instruction or reinforcement
to a voluntary action. In this system, unconscious mental (e.g., Kimble & Perlmuter,1970; Passingham,1993).

482 July 1999.American Psychologist


Figure 1
A Model of Conscious Will
EXPERIENCE OF CONSCIOUS WIll

/ -~'"",

Note. Will is experienced to the degree that an apparent causal path is inferred from thought to action.

again there would be no experience of will. The thought Young, 1995). The application of these principles to the
would be irrelevant. And if we thought of the tree limb experienceof conscious will provides a context for explain-
moving but noticed that something other than our thoughts ing the phenomena of volition across a number of areas of
had moved it (say, a passing lumberjack), no will would be psychology.
sensed. There would be only the perception of an external
causal event. These observations point to three sources of Priority: The Thought Should Precede the
the experience of conscious will-the priority, consistency, Action at a Proper Interval
and exclusivity of the thought we have about the action. Causal events precede their effects, usually in a timely
The thought should occur before the action, be consistent manner. So, for example, in Michotte's (1963) studies of
with the action, and not be accompanied by other potentialcauses.
cause perception, when one object moves along and ap-
pears to strike another, which then immediately begins to
Studies of how people perceive physical events (Mi- move in the same direction, people perceive a causal event.
chotte, 1963) indicate that the perception of causality is The first object has launched the seconq. If the second
highly dependent on these features of the relationship be- object sits there for a bit after the first has touched it,
tween the potenti~ cause and potential effect. The candi- however, and only then begins moving, the sense that this
date for the role oil cause must come first or at least at the is a causal event is lost, and the second object is perceived
same time as the ~ffect, it must yield movement that is to have started moving on its own. Then again, if .the
consistent with its own movement, and it must be unac- second object begins to move before the first even comes to
companied by rival causal events. The absence of any of touch it, the perception of causation is also absent. To be
these conditions tends to undermine the perception that perceived as a truly worthy cause,the event can't start too
causation has occurred. Similar principles have been de- soon or start too late-it has to be on time just before the
rived for the perception of causality for social and everyday effect.
events (Einhorn & Hogarth, 1986; Kelley, 1972, 1980; These observations suggest that the experience of will
McClure, 1998) and have also emerged from analyses of may also depend on the timely occurrence of thought prior
how organisms respond to patterns of stimulus contingency to action. Thought that occurs too far in advance of an
in conditioning paradigms (Alloy & Tabachnik, 1984; action is not likely to be seen as the cause of it; a person

July 1999. American Psychologist 483


who thinks of dumpinga bowl of soupon herboss'shead, most distant foresight would merely be premature and
for example,and then never thinks aboutthis again until would do little to promote the feeling that one had willed
doing it somedays later during a quiet dinnerparty is not the action. In line with this suggestion, Gollwitzer (1993)
likely to experiencethe action as willful. Thought that has proposed that actions intended far in advance to cor-
occurswell afterthe relevantactionis also notproneto cue respond with a triggering event (e.g., "I'll go when the light
an experienceof will. The personwho discovershaving turns green") may then tend to occur automatically without
done an act that was not consciouslyconsideredin ad- conscious thought, and thus without a sense of volition,
vance-say, getting in the car on a day off and absently when the triggering event ensues.
driving all the way to work-would also feel little in the The priority principle also indicates that thoughts
way of consciouswill. coming after action will not prompt the experience of will.
Somewherebetweenthese extreme examplesexist But again, it is not clear just how long following action the
cases in which conscious will is regularly experienced. thought would need to occur for will not to be experienced.
Little is known aboutthe parametersof timing that might One indication of the lower bound for willful experience is
maximizethis experience,but it seemslikely that thoughts Libet's (1985) observation that in the course of a willed
occurring just a few secondsbefore an action would be finger movement, conscious intention precedes action by
most prone to support the perception of willfulness. about 200 milliseconds. Perhaps if conscious thought of an
Thoughtsaboutan actionthat occur earlierthanthis might act occurs past this time, it is perceived as following the
not be linked with the action in a perceivedcausal unit act, or at least as being too late, and so is less likely to be
(Heider, 1958)becausethoughtand act were not in mind seen as causal. Studies of subjective simultaneity have
simultaneously.The time it usually takes the mind to examined the perceived timing of external events and ac-
wanderfrom one topic to anothercould be the basic limit, tions (e.g" McCloskey, Colebatch, Potter, & Burke, 1983),
then, for experiencingintent as causingaction. The mind but research has not yet tested the precise bounds for the
does wanderregularly (cf. Poppel, 1997; Wegner,1997); perception of consecutiveness of thought and action. Re-
for example,a reversiblefigure suchas a Neckercubethat searchersdo know, however, that people benefit from even
is perceived from one perspectivewill naturally tend to minimal priority information in making causal inferences,
changeto the other in aboutthreeseconds(Gomez,Argan- beyond the mere association of events (see Young, 1995,
dona, Solier, Angulo, & Vazquez,1995). Suchwandering for a review). It seems safe to say that thoughts occurring
suggeststhat a thoughtoccurringunderthreesecondsprior some seconds or minutes after an action would rarely be
to action could stay in mind and be linked to action, perceived as causal-and could thus not give rise to an
whereasa thoughtoccurringbefore that time might shift to experience of will during the action.
somethingelse before the act (in the absenceof active There are, of course, exceptions to the priority prin-
rehearsal,at any rate) and so underminethe experienceof ciple. Most notably, people may sometimes claim their acts
will. were willful even if they could only have known what they
Another estimate of the maximum interval from intent were doing after the fact. These exceptions have been
to action that could yield willfulness is based on short-term widely investigated for the very reason that they depart
memory storage time. The finding of several generationsof from normal priority. Such pos.1actionjustification is the
researchis that people can hold an item in mind to recall for central phenomenon of the theories of cognitive dissonance
no longer than about 30 seconds without rehearsal and that (Festinger, 1957) and self-perception (Bem, 1972), in
the practical retention time is even shorter when there are which people change their attitudes to be consistent with
significant intervening events (Baddeley, 1986). If the willful action even when the action was not intended.
causal inference linking thought and act is primarily per- Postaction presumptions of prior intention occur in young
ceptual, the shorter (3 seconds) estimate based on revers- children (Schult, 1996), in adults whose actions are dis-
ible figures might be more apt, whereas if the causal rupted (Wegner, Vallacher, Macomber, Wood, & Arps,
inference can occur through paired representation of 1984), and under certain conditions in commissurotomized
thought and act in short-term memory, the longer estimate patients (Gazzaniga, 1983). These findings indicate that
(30 seconds) might be more accurate. In whatever way the priority of intent is not the only source of the experience of
maximum interval is estimated, though, it is clear that there will and that other sources of the experience (such as
is only a small window prior to action in which relevant consistency and exclusivity) may come forward to suggest
thoughts must appear if the action is to be felt as willed. willfulness even when priority is not present.
This brief window reminds us that even long-term
planning for an action may not produce an experience of Consistency: The Thought Should Be
will unless the plan reappears in mind just as the action is Compatible With the Action
performed. Although thinking of an action far in advance When a billiard ball strikes another, the struck ball moves
of doing it would seem to be a signal characteristic of a in the same general direction that the striking ball was
premeditated action (cf. Brown, 1996; Vallacher & Weg- moving. We do not perceive causality very readily if the
ner, 1985), our analysis suggests that such distant foresight second ball takes off in a direction that, by the laws of
yields less will perception than does immediately prior physics, is inconsistent with the movement of the first
apprehension of the act. In the absenceof thought about the (Michotte, 1963). In the social attribution realm, too, con-
action that occurs just prior to its performance, even the sistency is evident in the inclination perceivers have to

484 July 1999.American Psychologist


attribute causality for behaviors to people whose personal- wateror lost objects.Again, the translationfrom variations
ities are seenas consistent with the behaviors (e.g., Jones & in levelnessof the hand to the rotation of the rod yields
Davis, 1965). Causes consistent with effects are more confusionthat makesit difficult to senseone's own causal
likely to be perceived as causal (Einhorn & Hogarth, 1986; role. Trncing back from the movement,one cannotfind a
Nisbett & Ross, 1980). prior thoughtin memory that is consistentwith the move-
The principle of consistency in the experience of will mentand that so could have causedit. The movementof
draws on the observation that the thoughts that serve as the rod is then attributed to forces outside the self that
po~ential causes of actions typically have semantic associ- presumablyhaveknowledgethatis guiding the movement.
ations with the actions. A thought that is perceived to cause The Chevreul pendulumis anotherautomatismthat
an act is often the name of the act or an image of its dependson obscuringthe relationshipbetweenintention
stimulus, execution, or consequence (Vallacher & Wegner, andaction.Whenpeoplehold a bob ona chain in one hand,
1985). Consistency of thought and act depends on a cog- they often getthe sensethatthe patternor frequencyof the
nitive process whereby the thoughts occurring prior to the pendulum movementis occurring without their volition
act are compared with the act as subsequently perceived. (Ansfield & Wegner,1996; Carpenter,1888). Occultguid-
When people do what they think they were going to do, anceis sometimesattributedto the pendulumasa resul4 or
there exists consistency between thought and act, and the the movementis interpreted as causedby the person's
experience of will is enhanced. When they think of one unconscious.Typically, however,the pendulumtends to
thing and do another-and this inconsistency is observable move as the person expectsit to move (Easton& Shor,
to them-their action does not feel as willfuI.3 1975)and is particularly likely to do this whenthe person
A number of empirical demonstrations of this phe- is trying to preventthe expectedmovement(Wegner,Ans-
nomenon appear in studies of the perception of contingency field, & Pilloff, 1998).
between behavior and outcomes (e.g., Alloy & Tabachnik, The perceivedinvoluntarinessof the movementseems
1984; Jenkins & Ward, 1965). One such demonstration to derive from thought-actioninconsistencyarising in the
comes from the observation that when people perform a sheerunwieldinessof the pendulum.Moving the hand in
task that could result in success or failure, they typically one directionproducesan impulseto the pendulumin the
envision success. Thus, when success occurs, the consis- oppositedirection,so the control of the movementis like
tency between the prior thought and the observed action tryil;lgto write while looking at one'shandin a mirror. And
produces an experience of will. So, for example, Langer once a movementgets started,it seemsdifficult to know
and Roth (1975) found that people were likely to perceive just what needsto be done to stopit. How do you stop a
that they controlled a chance event when they received a pendulumthatis swinging in an oval? For that matter,even
large number of initial successesin predicting that event. slight errorsof timing can causeone's attemptsto stopthe
Jenkins and Ward (1965) similarly found that the percep- pendulumto startit instead,and in just the wrongdirection.
tion that one is causing a successful outcome is enhanced The lackof consistencybetweenintentionand actionof the
merely by the increased frequency of that outcome. It pendulumpromotesthe sensethat the pendulum'smove-
makes sense, then, that depressedindividuals-who think mentis not controlled by the will. The involuntarinessof a
less often of success-are not as likely as others to over- variety of the motor automatismsappearstraceable to
perceive control of successful outcomes (Alloy & Abram- movementconfusion that interferes with perceptionsof
son, 1979). It might even be that in those instances when consistency(Wegner,in press).
people really do expect the worst and so think about it as The consistencyprinciple also offers a way of under-
they act, they might have a perverse experience of con- standing the experiencesof involuntarinessreported by
scious will when the worst happens. people with some fonDSof schizophrenia.Phenomenaof
The consistency principle also extends to more arcane alien control suchas thoughtinsertionand auditoryhallu-
and puzzling cases of the loss of will. Motor automatisms cinationsthat can occur in schizophreniainvolve thoughts,
such as dowsing, for example, appear to derive their lack of images,and actions that occur with marked feelings of
perceived voluntariness from the inconsistency of thought unintendedness. In the caseof hearingvoices,for example,
and action. People who have dowsed for water with a although neuropsychologicalevidenceindicates that the
forked stick often report that the stick moves by itself rather voicesare self-generated(e.g.,McGuire, Shah,& Murray,
than by their will. In the classic study of this phenomenon, 1993),schizophrenicpatientswith this symptomdescribe
Vogt and Hyman (1959) observed that a person holding a the voicesascoming from someoneotherthan themselves.
Y-shaped dowsing rod in both palms typically moves the Hoffman (1986)has proposedthat this experienceoccurs
wrists together or apart and that this produces pressure on when people find that their thoughts do not match their
the rod that can yield rapid upward or downward rotation of currentconsciousgoalsfor thinking. The thoughtscometo
the rod's point. The movement of the rod is hard to predict mind without a clear preview, and in fact may be highly
from the movement of one's wrists, however, and thus
people readily lose track of the relationship between their
3 Some kinds of behavior may be outside the range of plausible
intention and what they find themselves doing. This leads
voluntary action. Behaviors such as tics or reflexes may not be felt as
to the sense of involuntariness. Another sort of dowsing willful even with consistent prior thoughts (e.g., "I believe I'm going to
device is the l rod, which is held in a pistol grip and swivels sneeze»), perhaps because the person has learned that such behaviors
inside a tube held in the palm, ostensibly to point toward typically occur without thoughts.

July 1999. American Psychologist 485


discordant with the person's thoughts of what to think or sense that this is willful when we do it, for example, if we
say next. In the context of a conversation about the also realize that we are big, fat, compulsive chip-hounds.
weather, for example, the person might experience the At the same time, if a thought not to eat those chips occurs
thought "Eat the wax fruit." The inconsistency produces and does predict effective abstinence, the precedence of
such a strong sensethat the self did not will the thought that this thought over our disposition toward free feeding may
the thought is judged to be the action of an outside agent- lead us to feel that a special surge of will has caused our
and so is heard as a "voice." successful self-control. The experience of will may arise
These experiences may be particularly profound in both in thoughts that initiate behaviors and in thoughts that
schizophrenia because of a specific deficit in prospective stop them-and may be particularly strong when we find
memory for intention. Studies of the relationship between that thoughts consistent with stopping a behavior seem to
thought and motor control have suggestedthat thoughts of have overridden a pressing impulse and kept the behavior
what one is doing are poorly representedin some forms of from occurring.
schizophrenia. Malenka, Angel, Hampton, and Berger The exclusivity of thought as a cause of action can
(1982) found that people with schizophrenia have trouble also be challenged by external causes. Plausible external
correcting their own movement errors without visual feed- causes for an action might include other people or external
back, perhaps because of the absence of a concurrent forces that impinge on us even when we are thinking of the
mental representation of the movement Frith and Done action in advance. The extensive contemporary literature
(1989) suggested that such problems in "central monitor- on causal attribution in social situations (e.g., Gilbert,
ing" might underlie experiences of alien control. They 1995) has suggested that the presence of others and of
found that schizophrenic individuals who report alien con- situational forces provides an intricate causal context that
trol experiences, as compared with those without such could influence the individual's experience of will in a
experiences, were less able to correct their movement er- variety of ways. Other people with whom we interact, of
rors on a video game in the absence of visual feedback. course, are also thinking and acting, so our perceptions of
Apparently, they didn't know what they were doing. the causal relations between their thoughts and actions can
A deficit in the mental representation of action that enter into our interpretation of their willfulness, which
occurs during the action, then, may yield profound distur- may, then, have implications for the degree to which our
bance in conscious will. Without a thought in mind that is behavior in interaction with them is interpreted as willful as
consistent with the observed action, and presented instead well.
with inconsistency, the individual may be placed in the The interplay of these factors in the experience of will
position of feeling that the self could not have perfonned is illustrated in the phenomenonof action projection (Weg-
the action. The next step that occurs when will is not ner & Fuller, 1999). Action projection occurs when a
experienced, then, may be the inference that some other person performs a voluntary action and yet believes that
agent must be responsible. This inference anticipates a this action was done by someone else. Although such an
third principle of the experience of will, to which we now error sounds bizarre, it turns out the effect can be produced
turn. readily. The initial indications of this effect were found in
the practice of facilitated communication, a technique of
Exclusivity: The Thought Should Be the Only helping people with communication disorders to commu-
Apparent Cause of Action nicate by holding or bracing their hands while they are at a
A basic principle of causal inference is that we tend to computer keyboard. Although such facilitation does not
discount the causal influence of one potential cause if there actUally promote accurate communication (Jacobson, Mu-
are others available (Kelley, 1972; McClure, 1998). So, for lick, & Schwartz, 1995; Spitz, 1997; Twachtman-Cullen,
instance, in the case of those well-worn bi1Iiard balls, the 1997), it does leave people who have served as facilitators
causal influence of one on another can be called into with the profound sense that they have helped someone to
question by the arrival of a third just at the time of impact communicate-even though the content that is communi-
Applied to the experience of will, this principle suggests cated is fully traceable to the facilitator (Burgess et al.,
that people will be particularly sensitive to the possibility 1998).
that there are other causes of an action besides their own To assessaction projection more directly, Wegner and
thoughts. When their own thoughts do not appear to be the Fuller (1999) asked college student participants to attempt
exclusive cause of their action, they experience less con- to "read the unconscious muscle movements" of a confed-
scious will. And when other plausible causes are less erate participant whose fingers were placed atop their own
salient, in turn, they experience more conscious will. on "yes" and "no" response keys. The participant then
The causes that compete with thoughts are of two heard easy yes-no questions (e.g., "Is the capital of the
kinds-internal and external. The plausible internal causes United States Washington, DC?") while under the impres-
for an action might include one's emotions, habits, traits, or sion that the confederate was also hearing them, and the
other unconscious action tendencies. Whenever we become participant was asked to answer by pressing keys for the
aware of one of these unconscious teQdencies,we may lose confederate. The confederate actually heard no questions at
some of the sense of will even thOligh we have a prior, all, and so made no relevant movements, but participants
consistent thought of the action. Knowing that we are going noneth~less answered correctly 87% of the time and attrib-
to eat a large bag of potato chips may not contribute to the uted 37% of the influence for the answers to the confeder-

486 July 1999 .American Psychologist


ate. They answeredcorrectly, in other words, but did not an action involves attributing causality to the self (e.g., I
havea strongsenseof wIllfully having doneso andinstead did it), while interpreting it as a happening requires that
thoughtthe confederatehad played a significantpart. The causality be attributed to sources other than the self (e.g., It
patternof findingsacrosssix experimentssuggeststhat the happened to me)" (p. 200).
correct answersare produced automatically.The partici- The problem of understanding "whodunit" is an im-
pants do not discern that their thoughtsare the causeof portant one in social life more generally, and it often
theseanswers,however,becausethey were led to believe amounts to sorting out matters of exclusivity. As long as
thatthe confederatewasa plausiblecause.In short,the lack there are other possible agents around, whether real or
.of exclusivityhelpedto underminethe experienceof con- imagined, one's actions may at times be attributed to them,
sciouswill. and fluctuations in the senseof one's own will may follow.
Ambiguousexclusivity may alsounderliethe senseof This is what Milgram (1974) was speaking of in his sug-
involuntarinessthat occursin hypnosis.As a rule, there is gestion that obedience to authority is accompanied by an
a commonsensationamongpeoplewho arehypnotizedthat agentic shift, a change in the perceived source of agency
their suggestedbehaviors occur without conscious will for actions that occur when one obeys another. A further
(Lynn, Rhue,& Weekes,1990). Whenpeopleareinduced complication arising in dyads and groups is that a group
to experiencearm levitation ("Your arm feels very light, level of agency may also be constructed, such that there are
and it is rising up, rising up"), for example,in additionto things "we" do independent of what "you" do or what "I"
the arm actuallyrising, people often report that it does so do. One might experience the will of one's group rather
without benefit of their consciouswill. Although people than that of the self, for example, as a result of knowing
who experienceinvoluntarinessindeed have thoughts of that the group was thinking of doing something and that the
what their arm will do that are consistentwith their action group action had ensued.The computation of will in social
and prior to their action,they may well be havingtrouble life begins with the principle of exclusivity, but then blos-
discerningwhetherthosethoughtsare the exclusivecause soms into a variety of interesting formats quite beyond the
of the action. basic sense of self as agent.
Peoplein hypnosisconsentto follow instructionsfrom
the hypnotist,so their thoughtsdo not appearas-the exclu- An Illustrative Experiment:
sive cause of their actions. But unlike everydaysocial The I Spy Study
interaction,in which people typically can follow instruc- If will is an experience fabricated from perceiving a causal
tions without losing the senseof will, it seemsthat the link between thought and action, it should be possible to
processof hypnosisundermineswill perception.To under- lead people to experience willful action when in fact they
standthis, it is usefulto note that in hypnotic induction,the have done nothing. We conducted an experiment to learn
hypnotistsuggestsa seriesof actions,many of which are whether people will feel they willfully performed an action
difficult to perceive in oneself (e.g., "try to relax") and that was actually performed by someone else when condi-
many of which are so innocuous that the personseesno tions suggest their own thought may have caused the ac-
difficulty in complying (e.g.,"close your eyes").Eachtime tion. The study focused on the role of priority of thought
the hypnotistgives an instruction, the personthen thinks and action when there is consistency between the thought
about that actionand subsequentlyperformsthe action or and action and when the exclusivity of thought as a cause
receives no bodily feedback to the contrary. Over the of action is ambiguous. To create this circumstance, we
courseof severalrepetitions,it could be thatthehypnotist's were inspired by the ordinary household Ouija board. We
suggestionscometo be interpretedastheprimary causesof tested whether people would feel they had moved a Ouija-
the person's behavior,and the person's thoughtsas only like pointer if they simply thought about where it would go
echoesof what the hypnotisthas said. just in advance of its movement-even though the move-
This analysissuggeststhatpeoplein hypnosiscometo ment was in fact produced by another person.
interprettheirthoughtsas only part of a causalchain,rather Undergraduates (23 men and 28 women) from the
than as the immediate cause of their actions. There is University of Virginia participated in exchange for credit in
evidenceof a generaltendencyto attributegreatercausality introductory psychology. Each arrived for the experiment
to earlier rather than later events in a causal chain-a at about the same time as a confederate who was posing as
causalprimacyeffect (Johnson,Ogawa,Delforge,& Early, another participant. Both were greeted by the experimenter
1989; Vinokur & Ajzen, 1982). Moreover,this effect may and seated facing each other across a small table. On the
gain influence with repetition of the sequence(Young, table between them was a 12-centimeter square board,
1995). The developmentof involuntarinessin hypnosis mounted atop a computer mouse. Both participant and
may occur, then,throughthe learning of a causalinterpre- confederate were asked to place their fingertips on the side
tation for one's action that leaves out any role for one's of the board closest to them (see Figure 2) so that they
own thoughts.This view is consistentwith the longst..nd- could move the mouse together. They were asked to move
ing notionthathypnosisis an interpretiveexercisein which the mouse in slow sweeping circles and, by doing so, to
people are encouragedto view their actions as events move a cursor around a computer screen,which was visible
causedby the hypnotistratherthan by their own thoughts to both. The screen showed a photo called "Tiny Toys"
(Bowers, 1992; Kihlstrom, 1985; Kirsch & Lynn, 1997). from the book I Spy (Marzollo & Wick, 1992), picturing
As suggestedby Spanos(1982), "Interpreting behavioras about 50 small objects (e.g., plastic dinosaur, swan, car).

July 1999. American Psychologist 487


Figure 2
Experimental Setting for the I Spy Study

The experimenter explained that the study would in- were led to believe that the words they heard were not
vestigate people's feelings of intention for acts and how heard by the confederate.
these feelings come and go. It was explained that the pair The words served to prime thoughts about items on
were to stop moving the mouse every 30 seconds or so and the screen for the participant (e.g., "swan"), and one was
that they would rate each stop they made for personal presented for each trial. The confederate, on the other hand,
intentionality. That is, they each would rate how much they heard neither words nor music, but instead heard instruc-
had intended to make each stop, independent of their part- tions to make particular movements at particular times. For
ner's intentions. The participant and confederate made four of the trials, the confederate was instructed to move to
these ratings on scales, which they kept on clipboards in an object on the screen. A countdown followed until the
their laps. Each scale consisted of a 14"-centimeterline with time the confederate was to stop on the object. These
endpoints I allowed the stop to happen and I intended to forced stops were timed to occur midway through the
make the stop, and marks on the line were converted to participant's music. Each of these stops (e.g., to land pn the
percentage intended (0-100). swan) was timed to occur at specific intervals from when
The participant and confederate were told that they the participant heard the corresponding word (i.e., "swan").
would hear music and words through headphones during The participant heard the word consistent with the stop
the experiment. Each trial would involve a 30-second in- either 30 seconds before, 5 seconds before, I second be-
terval of mo~ement, after which they would hear a 10- fore, or 1 second after the confederate stopped on the
second clip of music, which would indicate that they
object. By varying the timing, we thus manipulated prior-
should make a stop. They were told that they would be
ity. Each of these four stops was on a different object.
listening to two different tracks of an audio tape, but that
These forced stops were embedded in a series of other trials
they would hear music at about the same times and should
for which the confederate simply let the participant make
wait a few secondsinto their music before making the stops
the stopS.4For these unforced stops, the participant heard a
to make sure they both were ready. Participant and con-
federate were also told that they would hear words over the word 2 secondsinto the music, whereas the confederate did
headphones, ostensibly to provide a mild distraction and not hear a word. The word corresponded to an object on the
that the reason for the separateaudio tracks was so that they screen for about half of these trials, and was something not
would hear different words. To emphasize this point, the on screen for the others.
experimenter played a few seconds of the tape and asked
the participant and confederate which word they heard in
their headphones.The confederat~ always reported hearing 4 There were 23 embedding trials for the first 17 participants, and 32
a different word from the participant. Thus, participants for the remaining participants.

488 July 1999 .American Psychologist

~
We perfornled an initial analysis of the unforced word occurredI secondfollowing the stop.This quadratic
stops to see whether participants might naturally stop on polynomial effect was significant in an analysis of vari-
the primed objects when the confederate could not have ance,F( I, 47) = 5.00,p < .05,whereasotherpolynomial
participated. If such an effect were observed, it would effectswerenot.SComparedwith trials when thoughtcon-
suggest that participants might also have played some sistentwith the forced actionwasprimed 30 secondsbefore
part in the forced stops-and we wished to assess this. or I secondafter the action,there was an increasedexpe-
Distances between stops and objects on the screen were rience of intention whenthe thoughtwas primed 1-5 sec-
computed for all unforced stops (i.e., all trials in which onds before the forced action. The mean percentageof
the confederate heard no instruction and simply let the intentionreportedon all the unforced stops-when partic-
participant make the stop). The mean distance onscreen ipantswereindeedfree to movethe cursoranywhere-was
between the stop and an object (e.g., dinosaur) was 56.09 (SD = 11.76), a level in the same range as that
measured separately for stops when that object was the observedfor the forced stopsin the I-secondand 5-second
primed word and for stops when the primed word was priming trials.
something not shown onscreen (e.g., "monkey"). The In postexperimentalinterviews, we learned that par-
mean distance between stop and object when the prime ticipants often searchedfor items onscreenthat they had
word referred to the object was 7.60 centimeters (SD = heard named over their headphones.Perhapsthis sense
1.85), and this was not significantly closer than the of searchingfor the item, combined with the subsequent
distance of 7.83 centimeters (SD = 0.82) when the prime forced stop on the item, was particularly helpful for
word did not refer to the object, 1(50) = 0.86, p = .39. prompting the experience of intending to stop on the
Thus, simply hearing words did not cause participants to item. We do not know from thesedata just what feature
stop on the items. The forced stops created by the of having the object in mind prior to the forced stop
confederate were thus not likely to have been abetted by producedthe senseof will, but it is clear that the timing
movement originated by the participant. of the thought in relation to the action is important.
On the forced stops, a pattern of perceived intention When participants were reminded of an item on the
emerged as predicted by the priority principle. Although screenjust I or 5 secondsbefore they were forced to
there was a tendency overall for participants to perceive the move the cursor to it, they reported having performed
forced stops as intended (M = 52%, SD = 23.95), there this movementintentionally. Such reminding a full 30
was a marked fluctuation in this perception depending on secondsbefore the forced movement or I second after
when the prime word occurred. As shown in Figure 3, the movement, in turn, yielded less of this sense of
perceived intentionality was lower when the prime word intentionality. The parallel observation that participants
appeared 30 seconds before the forced stop, increased did not move toward primed objects on unforced trials
when the word occurred 5 seconds or 1 second before the suggeststhat participants were unlikely to have contrib-
stop, and then dropped again to a lower level when the uted to the movement on the forced trials. Apparently,
the experienceof will can be createdby the manipulation
of thought and action in accord with the principle of
priority, and this experiencecan occur even when the
person's thought cannotpave createdthe action.
Figure 3
Mean Percentage of Intentionality Rated for Forced Conclusion: Real and Apparent
Stops on Objects Primed 30 Seconds Before, 5 Mental Causation
Seconds Before, 1 Second Before, or 1 Second After
the Stop The experienceof will is like magic. As Harold Kelley
(1980) observed,a magic trick involves disguisinga real
70 I causalsequence(e.g.,a rabbitis placedin the hat whenthe
I
65 I audienceis looking elsewhere)and presentinginsteadan
I apparentcausalsequence(i.e.,a nice floppy-earedbunnyis
~ 60 I
\1 extracted from an empty hat). The magician createsthe~
55

50 SIt was sometimeshard for the confederateto force a stop (e.g., the
C
cursor was far from the object or just passing the object), and trials on
~
"- 45
CD
D.. 40
~I
which the appropriatestop could not be forced were not included in the
analysis.Stopsfor which the forcedobject turnedout not to be the closest
I objectto the cursorwere alsoexcluded.Becauseof the sporadicnatureof
35 the missing data,only 27-40 responsesfrom the 51 participantswere
30 I I I i I valid at eachtime point (and only eight participantshad valid responses
acrossall four trials). Thus. a standardanalysisof varianceestimation
30 5 1-1 routine was notpossible.Instead.we useda structuralequationmodeling
algorithm that assumesthe data were missing at random. The model we
Seconds Between Thought and Act estimatedplacedeachparticipantin a group basedon his or her patternof
Note. Error bars ore stondord errors.
missing dataand estimatedthe polynomial effectsas invariant acrossall
groups(seeMcArdle & Hamagami,1992).

489
July 1999. American Psychologist
illusion by managing eventsso that the apparentcausal a person's experience of will. These processes may be
sequenceis far more conspicuousthan the real one. The less efficient than automatic processes and require more
experienceof consciouswill is a comparableillusion pro- cognitive resources, but even if they occur along with an
duced by the perceptionof an apparentcausal sequence experience of control or conscious will, this experience
relatingone's consciousthoughtto one's action.In reality, is not a direct indication of their real causal influence.6
this may not be the causalmechanismat all. The unique human convenience of conscious thoughts
The real and apparent causal sequencesrelating that preview our actions gives us the privilege of feeling we
thoughtand action probably do tend to correspondwith willfully cause what we do. In fact, unconscious and in-
eachother someproportion of the time. After all, people scrutable mechanisms create both conscious thought about
are pretty good informationprocessorswhengiven access action and create the action as well, and also produce the
to .theright information. The occurrenceof consciousin- sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as
tentionprior to actionprovidesa fine clue asto how things the cause of action. So, although our thoughts may have
that are on the person's mind might pertain to what the deep, important, and unconscious causal connections to our
persondoes. In fact, the mental system that introduces actions, the experience of conscious will arises from a
thoughtsof action to mind and keeps them coordinated process that interprets these connections, not from the
with the actionsis itself an intriguing mechanism.How- connections themselves. Believing that our conscious
ever,if aswe suggest,consciouswill is an experiencethat thoughts cause oUTactions is an error based on the illusory
arisesfrom the interpretationof cuesto cognitive causality, experience of will-much like believing that a rabbit has
thenapparentmentalcausationis generatedby an interpre- indeed popped out of an empty hat.
tive processthat is fundamentallyseparatefrom the mech-
anisticprocessof real mentalcausation.The experienceof
will can be an indication that mind is causing action, 6 The experience of conscious will may be more likely to accompany
especiallyif the personis a good self-interpreter,but it is inefficient processes than efficient ones because there is more time avail-
not conclusive. able prior to action for inefficient thoughts to become conscious, so as to
The experienceof will is the way our minds portray prompt the formation of causal inferences linking thought and action. This
their operations to us, then, not their actual operation. might explain why controlled or conscious processes are often linked with
feelings of will, whereas automatic processes are not.
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