Voluntary action

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Voluntary action is an anticipated goal-orientated movement. This psychological concept is part of cognitive psychology, philosophy, neurology, criminology, and many other fields. It is associated with consciousness and will. Voluntary action works with action effect. Action effect is when an individual has learned to associate a particular action with a particular outcome. Thus, voluntary action is demonstrated when one cognitively identifies the desired outcome and pairs it with the action it will take to achieve it. According to psychologist such as Tolman this concept is applicable to humans and animals alike.[1] However, there are some criticisms to the theory of voluntary action. Psychologist Charles Nuckolls explains in his paper that voluntary action is based on the principle that we are in control of our own actions. He states that it is not known how we come to plan what actions will be executed.[2]


The concept gained recognition when it was discussed in The Principles of Psychology by William James in 1890. James states that, for something to be classified as a voluntary action, “the act must be foreseen”. Thus, it is opposite to involuntary action. To highlight the difference between the two, James gives the example of movement: the idea of movement is a voluntary action, however, the movement itself, once the idea has been formed, is involuntary. [3] This is true provided the action itself require no further thought. Voluntary action stems from the fact humans and animals have desires and the wish to fulfill them. To do this, goals are developed and voluntary action undertook to achieve the goals. Some of the terms that James used to describe voluntary action – such as desire – are now outdated according to cognitive psychology due its introspective experience but the general concepts are still held true.[1]


  1. ^ a b Hommel, B.(2003). "Acquisition and control of voluntary action", pp. 34–48 in Roth, Gerhard (Ed.) Voluntary action: Brains, minds, and sociality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
  2. ^ Nuckolls, C. (2004). "Toward a cultural psychology of voluntary action beliefs". Anthropos 99 (2): 411–425. JSTOR 40466389. 
  3. ^ James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology, Vol 2. New York, NY: Holt & Co.

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