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Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will

By Daniel M. Wegner and Thalia Wheatley


The experience of willing an act arises from interpreting one's thought as the cause of the act. Conscious will is thus experienced as a function of the priority, consistency, and exclusivity of the thought about the action. The thought must occur before the action, be consistent with the action, and not be accompanied by other causes. An experiment illustrating the role of priority found that people can arrive at the mistaken belief that they have intentionally caused an action that in fact they were forced to perform when they are simply led to think about the action just before its occurrence. Conscious will is a pervasive human experience. We all have the sense that we do things, that we cause our acts, that we are agents. As William James (1890) observed, "the whole sting and excitement of our voluntary life... depends on our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago " (p. 453). And yet, the very notion of the will seems to contradict the core assumption of psychological science. After all, psychology examines how behavior is caused by mechanisms—the rattling off of genetic, unconscious, neural, cognitive, emotional, social, and yet other chains that lead, dully or not, to the things people do. If the things we do are caused by such mechanisms, how is it that we nonetheless experience willfully doing them? Our approach to this problem is to look for yet another chain—to examine the mechanisms that produce the experience of conscious will itself. In this article, we do this by exploring the possibility that the experience of will is a result of the same mental processes that people use in the perception of causality more generally. Quite simply, it may be that people experience conscious will when they interpret their own thought as the cause of their action. This idea means that people can experience conscious will quite independent of any actual causal connection betwee

Year: 1999
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