Do we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause actions?

(X-post from idontknowwhatiam) It’s doubtful, is the short answer, but the long answer is more interesting. What I’m asking about today is the account of the sense of agency put forward by Daniel Wegner and various collaborators since the late ‘90’s (Aarts, Custers, & Wegner, 2005; Wegner, 2002; Wegner, Sparrow, & Winerman, 2004; Wegner & Wheatley, 1999). Their account can be read as either an alternative to or an addition to the comparator model account of the sense of agency which we have met in previous posts. Unlike the comparator model which hypothesises that the sense of agency is elicited by the same mechanisms that are responsible for action control, Wegner and colleagues’ account suggests that the sense of agency is elicited by an inference as to the internal causes of action. In its most basic form if I infer that one or other of mental states, usually on of my intentions, causes me to act in a certain way, then I experience a sense of agency for that action. But, that’s getting ahead of ourselves for the moment, so let’s remind ourselves what the sense of agency is.

“Imagine that you are moving swiftly down a flight of stairs. At the appropriate floor, you slow and reach for the door handle that will allow you egress from the stairwell. As you open the door, you find it moves far more rapidly than you had intended. Someone else is opening the door from the other side! Call this the simultaneous door-opening effect. This effect involves the feeling that one is the agent behind an action being suddenly replaced by the feeling that one is not the agent due to the interference of another.” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 345)

In this example, which is supposed to be fairly ordinary and mundane the sense of agency is just the feeling of being the agent who is performing/controlling/initiating (different authors prefer different descriptors here) action. That is the feeling which Wegner and colleagues’ are seeking to explain. So what, on their account, might be happening in the simultaneous door opening case? It seems that the agent of this action will, for a while, infer that their mental states, their intention to open the door say, is causing their action, and so they experience a sense of agency. But, after experiencing the effects of another on the door this inference is no longer plausible and so their sense of agency is lost or reduced.

In order to complete the model Wegner and colleagues owe us an account of how such inferences are made. Well that’s probably asking a bit much, but we would like an account that tells us something about what information the inference is based on and that makes predictions about when it is made. This is just what we get in the articles cited above. To be able to infer that one or other of one’s mental states are the cause of an action one needs to represent the action and a mental state that is a potential cause. Say opening a door and one’s intention to open the door. When do we infer that one’s intention caused the door to open? According to Wegner and colleagues we do so automatically when 3 further conditions are met. First, the intention must appear an appropriate time prior to the action, e.g. a memory of previously opening a door won’t be inferred as the cause of one currently opening the door. Call this the principle of priority. Second, the intention must be consistent with the action, i.e. it should specify that action, e.g. my desire to get a coke represents a different action than my intention to open the door so won’t be inferred as a cause of that action. Call this the principle of consistency. Third, the intention must be represented as the exclusive cause of the action. Call this the principle of exclusivity. This is what is violated in the door opening scenario, in that case the subject perceives that another agent is also opening the door and so their intention to open the door isn’t an exclusive cause of it opening. As such their sense of agency is reduced.

Wegner and colleagues’ studies looked to confirm this model by attempting to elicit a sense of agency for actions not controlled by the subject. They do so by creating circumstances where to the subject it appears that the principles of priority and consistency are met. Typically it is clear to the subject that the principle of exclusivity is not met. However, as each of the three principles are considered to contribute to the sense of agency, and the sense itself is conceived of as being formed by continuum, it is hypothesised that subjects in these studies should report a weak sense of agency rather than a full or absent sense.

If we allow the assumption that the inference that one’s intention is the cause of an action is mandatory, i.e. that the subject must make it when the principles are met, then combined with the above assumption about a continuum of senses of agency, some studies do support Wegner and colleagues’ model. For example, in the helping hands study (Wegner et al., 2004), subjects reported a weak sense of agency for other people’s actions:

“In this study, one subject (the participant) stood with their back against the second subject (the helper). The participant stood with their arms by their side, whilst the helper reached their arms forward underneath the participant’s arms. A screen obscured the helper in such a way that their arms appeared (from the front) to be those of the participant. Both subjects were given head phones. The helpers heard a series of instructions to perform a set of hand movements (e.g. make the ok sign with both hands). The participants were divided into three groups depending on what they heard. One group (the preview group) heard the instructions to the helper whilst the other groups (the control groups) heard either nothing or an instruction to perform a movement other than what the helper heard. Those in the preview group reported a greater sense of agency over the movements of the helper than either of the control groups (Wegner et al. 2004, pp. 841 & 842).” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 346).

A variety of studies, mostly coming from Wegner and his collaborators, seem to confirm that subject’s experiences of their own agency can be altered by playing with the principles of priority, consistency and exclusivity. As such we have good reason to consider this model a viable explanation of the sense of agency.

As I said above, though, I think it is doubtful that it is making such an inference that causes subjects to experience a sense of agency. The reason for this, is that such an account ties the sense of agency to the subject’s knowledge of their mental states, in particular their intentions. This, it seems, we have good reason to question as some subjects seem to experience a sense of agency even when they don’t know what their intentions are.

A study by Montgomery and Lightner (2004) provides an illustrative example. They began by showing young children (3-4 years old) a picture of a ball. They then copied the picture by holding their child’s drawing hand (with the child’s eyes closed) and moving the hand in a circle. The child then watched the experimenter alter the picture to be a picture of a clock. In comparison conditions the child either produced a copy of the picture of a ball themselves or produced the copy themselves and then watched as the experimenter changed it to a picture of a clock. After the picture of a clock or ball was produced in this way the child was asked who had produced the (final) picture. This was relatively easy for 3-4 year olds, most of whom were able to accurately state who drew the final picture. That is they were able to identify the agent of the action, suggesting they experienced a sense of agency. Despite this, in the conditions where the experimenter changed the picture of a ball to a picture of the clock, the children tended to claim that they had tried (i.e. intended) to produce a picture of a clock. In other words, although the children where good at keeping track of who the agent of the action was, they were poor at knowing their own intentions. Even though they knew it was the experimenter and not themselves who had drawn the clock, they nevertheless claimed that they had tried to produce the picture of a clock.

Lost? Fair enough. The point is in this study children knew who had done what (so they had a sense of agency) but they did not know what their intentions where. So it seems that a sense of agency is not dependent on knowing what one’s intentions are, as predicted by Wegner and colleagues’ model. So it is, as I say, doubtful that we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause our actions.

with love


A more complete version of this argument is published in: Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.


Aarts, H., Custers, R., & Wegner, D. M. (2005). On the inference of personal authorship: enhancing experienced agency by priming effect information. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 439–458.

Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.

Montgomery, D. E., & Lightner, M. (2004). Children’s developing understanding of differences between their own intentional action and passive movement. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22, 417–438.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press.

Wegner, D. M., Sparrow, B., & Winerman, L. (2004). Vicarious Agency: Experiencing control over the movements of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(6), 838–848.

Wegner, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54(7), 480–492.


  1. Hi Glenn,

    I suppose my doubts about this argument arise from general doubts about subtle experiments involving very young children. Do they really understand the instructions in the way an adult would? Do three year olds really make a clear distinction between doing something and being responsible for it? Maybe so, but I would like to see more evidence for it.

    My own understanding of the sense of agency is roughly as follows: (1) We have conscious awareness of urges to do various things; (2) When we are aware of an urge to do something, and then immediately afterward carry out the action, we feel a sense of agency. The argument here doesn’t yet convince me that this understanding is wrong.

    Best regards, Bill Skaggs

  2. Glenn Carruthers

    Thanks for taking the time to write, Bill, much appreciated.

    In general I agree with your concern, but for this task care was taken to keep things as simple as possible for the kids. After the drawings where made all they where asked was 1) what where you trying to draw? and 2) who drew the picture? I don’t think that these questions are particularly hard for kids. Now if the objection where that maybe the kids say they tried to draw the final picture because it is there (they can see it) and kids have trouble with inhibition, that would require a different response. To this I would point to converging evidence not in the post: 1) that some of the great apes, which don’t seem to have knowledge of their mental states, show signs of possessing a sense of agency such as recognising themselves in a mirror and 2) high functioning children with autism are much worse at tasks that require them to identify their own intentions than they are at complex self-recognition tasks which depend on a sense of agency.

    For your positive proposal I agree that the correlation between seeming to want to do something and having a sense of agency for doing that something needs to be explained, but for the reasons above that correlation seems unlikely to be explained be inferring that the wanting caused the action.

    all the best

  3. Very interesting post, Glenn!

    I have two short comments:

    Children supposedly don’t know their intentions — from the description of the experimental procedure it is more rational to infer that a) children may not remember their intentions correctly, or b) children may change their opinion / belief about their intention. Stating that children don’t correctly recognize their intentions (at the time of performing an action) requires a stronger argument.

    From the post above I can infer that the model is about what affects the sense of agency and that some manipulations may elicit the sense of agency, but the model does not preclude that the sense of agency comes also from other sources, for example from intentions. This is the greatest weakness of the model in my opinion.

    • Glenn Carruthers

      Thanks for your thoughts, Ihtio, much appreciated
      On children not knowing their intentions- I think that’s a reasonable worry and now wish I’d focused on apes rather than kids, because apes seem to lack the capacity to know their intentions, but some of them show evidence of a sense of agency. That said we are dealing with experiences here which are very hard to measure, so we need converging evidence in order to have any confidence in the conclusions.

      As to the scope of Wegner et al’s model it really depends on which paper you read. In Wegner and Wheatley 1999 they’re clear that they’re talking about one set of factors that manipulate the sense of agency, amongst others, by the time of his book Wegner seemed to be treating the model as the explanation of the sense of agency. I don’t know if there’s much work on what’s the best/most likely interpretation of the model — in one paper I think Eddy Nahmias suggests that he prefers the one set of factors amongst others interpretation, but that’s all I can think of.


      • Actually, I like the model that states that the sense of agency is heavily based on making inferences. I think it could be applied to other agents in the environment. We have a sense of agency (only not our agency) when we look at birds, dogs, etc.
        This mechanism of inference may be so strong that it even leads to overinterpretations, as is the case with supernatural beliefs (ghosts, gods), or psychosis-like phenomena.

        The interesting thing is that the model would have to postulate that we learn correlations (cause-effect links) in the world, as some of them we ascribe to ourselves. It’s quite neat.

        • Glenn Carruthers

          Indeed, but what’s wrong with standard Theory of Mind (ToM) accounts of the perception of others agency? Or do you think perhaps that Wegner’s account is of the same sort?

          • The comparison of Wegner’s account of agency with ToM seems to me to be of a degree or complexity: Wegner’s account is much simpler, it may be easier to think in these terms when talking about bacteria eating other bacteria, etc. For making inferences about an agent’s a simple model of it is required, not necessarily assuming that the agent in question possesses some kind of a mind.
            ToM refers to a complex model of an agent to which intentions are ascribed.

            Wegner’s account would be helpful in taking a perspective on simpler minds (insects, birds) that may not need (or even be capable of) creating a complex ToM-like model of other agents.
            ToM seems to be something more, useful when talking about sophisticated minds (humans, neanderthals, aliens, AIs).

            At least, that’s how I see it.

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