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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 consciou
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.