VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of Informational Site Network Informational
- Home - - Mind Reading - - The Mind -

The Extent Of Voluntary Control Over Our Acts

A relatively small proportion of our acts, or responses, are controlled
by volition. Nature, in her wise economy, has provided a simpler and
easier method than to have all our actions performed or checked with
conscious effort.

CLASSES OF ACTS OR RESPONSE.--Movements or acts, like other phenomena,
do not just happen. They never occur without a cause back of them.
Whether they are performed with a conscious end in view or without it,
the fact remains the same--something must lie back of the act to account
for its performance. During the last hour, each of us has performed many
simple movements and more or less complex acts. These acts have varied
greatly in character. Of many we were wholly unconscious. Others were
consciously performed, but without feeling of effort on our part. Still
others were accomplished only with effort, and after a struggle to
decide which of two lines of action we should take. Some of our acts
were reflex, some were chiefly instinctive, and some were volitional.

SIMPLE REFLEX ACTS.--First, there are going on within every living
organism countless movements of which he is in large part unconscious,
which he does nothing to initiate, and which he is largely powerless to
prevent. Some of them are wholly, and others almost, out of the reach
and power of his will. Such are the movements of the heart and vascular
system, the action of the lungs in breathing, the movements of the
digestive tract, the work of the various glands in their process of
secretion. The entire organism is a mass of living matter, and just
because it is living no part of it is at rest.

Movements of this type require no external stimulus and no direction,
they are reflex; they take care of themselves, as long as the body is
in health, without let or hindrance, continuing whether we sleep or
wake, even if we are in hypnotic or anaesthetic coma. With movements of
reflex type we shall have no more concern, since they are almost wholly
physiological, and come scarcely at all within the range of the

INSTINCTIVE ACTS.--Next there are a large number of such acts as closing
the eyes when they are threatened, starting back from danger, crying out
from pain or alarm, frowning and striking when angry. These may roughly
be classed as instinctive, and have already been discussed under that
head. They differ from the former class in that they require some
stimulus to set the act off. We are fully conscious of their
performance, although they are performed without a conscious end in
view. Winking the eyes serves an important purpose, but that is not why
we wink; starting back from danger is a wise thing to do, but we do not
stop to consider this before performing the act.

And so it is with a multitude of reflex and instinctive acts. They are
performed immediately upon receiving an appropriate stimulus, because we
possess an organism calculated to act in a definite way in response to
certain stimuli. There is no need for, and indeed no place for, anything
to come in between the stimulus and the act. The stimulus pulls the
trigger of the ready-set nervous system, and the act follows at once.
Acts of these reflex and instinctive types do not come properly within
the range of volition, hence we will not consider them further.

AUTOMATIC OR SPONTANEOUS ACTS.--Growing out of these reflex and
instinctive acts is a broad field of action which may be called
automatic or spontaneous. The distinguishing feature of this type of
action is that all such acts, though performed now largely without
conscious purpose or intent, were at one time purposed acts, performed
with effort; this is to say that they were volitional. Such acts as
writing, or fingering the keyboard of a piano, were once consciously
purposed, volitional acts selected from many random or reflex movements.

The effects of experience and habit are such, however, that soon the
mere presence of pencil and paper, or the sight of the keyboard, is
enough to set one scribbling or playing. Stated differently, certain
objects and situations come to suggest certain characteristic acts or
responses so strongly that the action follows immediately on the heels
of the percept of the object, or the idea of the act. James calls such
action ideo-motor. Many illustrations of this type of acts will occur
to each of us: A door starts to blow shut, and we spring up and avert
the slam. The memory of a neglected engagement comes to us, and we have
started to our feet on the instant. A dish of nuts stands before us, and
we find ourselves nibbling without intending to do so.

THE CYCLE FROM VOLITIONAL TO AUTOMATIC.--It is of course evident that no
such acts, though they were at one time in our experience volitional,
now require effort or definite intention for their performance. The law
covering this point may be stated as follows: All volitional acts, when
repeated, tend, through the effects of habit, to become automatic, and
thus relieve the will from the necessity of directing them.

To illustrate this law try the following experiment: Draw on a piece of
cardboard a star, like figure 19, making each line segment two inches.
Seat yourself at a table with the star before you, placing a mirror back
of the star so that it can be seen in the mirror. Have someone hold a
screen a few inches above the table so as to hide the star from your
direct view, but so that you can see it in the mirror. Now reach your
hand under the screen and trace with a pencil around the star from left
to right, not taking your pencil off the paper until you get clear
around. Keep track of how long it takes to go around and also note the
irregular wanderings of your pencil. Try this experiment five times
over, noting the decrease in time and effort required, and the increase
in efficiency as the movements tend to become automatic.

VOLITIONAL ACTION.--While it is obvious that the various types of action
already described include a very large proportion of all our acts, yet
they do not include all. For there are some acts that are neither reflex
nor instinctive nor automatic, but that have to be performed under the
stress of compulsion and effort. We constantly meet situations where the
necessity for action or restraint runs counter to our inclinations. We
daily are confronted by the necessity of making decisions in which the
mind must be compelled by effort to take this direction or that
direction. Conflicting motives or tendencies create frequent necessity
for coercion. It is often necessary to drive our bark counter to the
current of our desires or our habits, or to enter into conflict with a

the state of inward unrest which we call indecision. A thought enters
the mind which would of itself prompt an act; but before the act can
occur, a contrary idea appears and the act is checked; another thought
comes favoring the act, and is in turn counterbalanced by an opposing
one. The impelling and inhibiting ideas we call motives or reasons
for and against the proposed act. While we are balancing the motives
against each other, we are said to deliberate. This process of
deliberation must go on, if we continue to think about the matter at
all, until one set of ideas has triumphed over the other and secured the
attention. When this has occurred, we have decided, and the
deliberation is at an end. We have exercised the highest function of the
will and made a choice.

Sometimes the battle of motives is short, the decision being reached as
soon as there is time to summon all the reasons on both sides of the
question. At other times the conflict may go on at intervals for days or
weeks, neither set of motives being strong enough to vanquish the other
and dictate the decision. When the motives are somewhat evenly balanced
we wisely pause in making a decision, because when one line of action is
taken, the other cannot be, and we hesitate to lose either opportunity.
A state of indecision is usually highly unpleasant, and no doubt more
than one decision has been hastened in our lives simply that we might be
done with the unpleasantness attendant on the consideration of two
contrary and insistent sets of motives.

It is of the highest importance when making a decision of any
consequence that we should be fair in considering all the reasons on
both sides of the question, allowing each its just weight. Nor is this
as easy as it might appear; for, as we saw in our study of the emotions,
our feeling attitude toward any object that occupies the mind is largely
responsible for the subjective value we place upon it. It is easy to be
so prejudiced toward or against a line of action that the motives
bearing upon it cannot get fair consideration. To be able to eliminate
this personal factor to such an extent that the evidence before us on a
question may be considered on its merits is a rare accomplishment.

TYPES OF DECISION.--A decision may be reached in a variety of ways, the
most important ones of which may now briefly be described after the
general plan suggested by Professor James:

THE REASONABLE TYPE.--One of the simplest types of decision is that in
which the preponderance of motives is clearly seen to be on one side or
the other, and the only rational thing to do is to decide in accordance
with the weight of evidence. Decisions of this type are called
reasonable. If we discover ten reasons why we should pursue a certain
course of action, and only one or two reasons of equal weight why we
should not, then the decision ought not to be hard to make. The points
to watch in this case are (a) that we have really discovered all the
important reasons on both sides of the case, and (b) that our feelings
of personal interest or prejudice have not given some of the motives an
undue weight in our scale of values.

ACCIDENTAL TYPE: EXTERNAL MOTIVES.--It is to be doubted whether as many
of our decisions are made under immediate stress of volition as we
think. We may be hesitating between two sets of motives, unable to
decide between them, when a third factor enters which is not really
related to the question at all, but which finally dictates the decision
nevertheless. For example, we are considering the question whether we
shall go on an excursion or stay at home and complete a piece of work.
The benefits coming from the recreation, and the pleasures of the trip,
are pitted against the expense which must be incurred and the
desirability of having the work done on time. At this point, while as
yet we have been unable to decide, a friend comes along, and we seek to
evade the responsibility of making our own decision by appealing to him,
You tell me what to do! How few of us have never said in effect if not
in words, I will do this or that if you will! How few have never taken
advantage of a rainy day to stay from church or shirk an undesirable
engagement! How few have not allowed important questions to be decided
by some trivial or accidental factor not really related to the choice in
the least!

This form of decision is accidental decision. It does not rest on
motives which are vitally related to the case, but rather on the
accident of external circumstances. The person who habitually makes his
decisions in this way lacks power of will. He does not hold himself to
the question until he has gathered the evidence before him, and then
himself direct his attention to the best line of action and so secure
its performance. He drifts with the tide, he goes with the crowd, he
shirks responsibility.

ACCIDENTAL TYPE: SUBJECTIVE MOTIVES.--A second type of accidental
decision may occur when we are hesitating between two lines of action
which are seemingly about equally desirable, and no preponderating
motive enters the field; when no external factor appears, and no
advising friend comes to the rescue. Then, with the necessity for
deciding thrust upon us, we tire of the worry and strain of deliberation
and say to ourselves, This thing must be settled one way or the other
pretty soon; I am tired of the whole matter. When we have reached this
point we are likely to shut our eyes to the evidence in the case, and
decide largely upon the whim or mood of the moment. Very likely we
regret our decision the next instant, but without any more cause for
the regret than we had for the decision.

It is evident that such a decision as this does not rest on valid
motives but rather on the accident of subjective conditions. Habitual
decisions of this type are an evidence of a mental laziness or a mental
incompetence which renders the individual incapable of marshaling the
facts bearing on a case. He cannot hold them before his mind and weigh
them against each other until one side outweighs the other and dictates
the decision. Of course the remedy for this weakness of decision lies in
not allowing oneself to be pushed into a decision simply to escape the
unpleasantness of a state of indecision, or the necessity of searching
for further evidence which will make the decision easier.

On the other hand, it is possible to form a habit of indecision, of
undue hesitancy in coming to conclusions when the evidence is all before
us. This gives us the mental dawdler, the person who will spend several
minutes in an agony of indecision over whether to carry an umbrella on
this particular trip; whether to wear black shoes or tan shoes today;
whether to go calling or to stay at home and write letters this
afternoon. Such a person is usually in a stew over some inconsequential
matter, and consumes so much time and energy in fussing over trivial
things that he is incapable of handling larger ones. If we are certain
that we have all the facts in a given case before us, and have given
each its due weight so far as our judgment will enable us to do, then
there is nothing to be gained by delaying the decision. Nor is there any
occasion to change the decision after it has once been made unless new
evidence is discovered bearing on the case.

DECISION UNDER EFFORT.--The highest type of decision is that in which
effort is the determining factor. The pressure of external circumstances
and inward impulse is not enough to overcome a calm and determined I
will. Two possible lines of action may lie open before us. Every
current of our being leads toward the one; in addition, inclination,
friends, honors, all beckon in the same direction. From the other course
our very nature shrinks; duty alone bids us take this line, and promises
no rewards except the approval of conscience. Here is the crucial point
in human experience; the supreme test of the individual; the last
measure of man's independence and power. Winning at this point man has
exercised his highest prerogative--that of independent choice; failing
here, he reverts toward the lower forms and is a creature of
circumstance, no longer the master of his own destiny, but blown about
by the winds of chance. And it behooves us to win in this battle. We may
lose in a contest or a game and yet not fail, because we have done our
best; if we fail in the conflict of motives we have planted a seed of
weakness from which we shall at last harvest defeat.

Jean Valjean, the galley slave of almost a score of years, escapes and
lives an honest life. He wins the respect and admiration of friends; he
is elected mayor of his town, and honors are heaped on him. At the
height of his prosperity he reads one day that a man has been arrested
in another town for the escaped convict, Jean Valjean, and is about to
be sent to the galleys. Now comes the supreme test in Jean Valjean's
life. Shall he remain the honored, respected citizen and let an innocent
man suffer in his stead, or shall he proclaim himself the long-sought
criminal and again have the collar riveted on his neck and take his
place at the oars? He spends one awful night of conflict in which
contending motives make a battle ground of his soul. But in the morning
he has won. He has saved his manhood. His conscience yet lives--and he
goes and gives himself up to the officers. Nor could he do otherwise and
still remain a man.

Next: Strong And Weak Wills

Previous: The Nature Of The Will

Add to Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed 2938