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The spontaneousness of skill and the impulsivity of habit


The objective of this paper is to articulate a distinction between habit and bodily skill as different ways of acting without deliberation. I start by elaborating on a distinction between habit and skill as different kinds of dispositions. Then I argue that this distinction has direct implications for the varieties of automaticity involved in habitual and skilful bodily acts. The argument suggests that paying close attention to the metaphysics of agency can help to articulate more precisely questions regarding the varieties of automaticity exhibited in overt action.

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  1. 1.

    Setiya (2007: 55) talks of the ‘habit’ involved in playing a musical instrument, and uses “habit” and “skill” interchangeably in the same passage; Velleman (2007: 139) takes the ability to drive to consist in a set of habits. Papineau (2015: 399) collapses the distinction in the opposite direction. He adopts a standard view on which basic acts are exercises of skills. But then he claims that taking a familiar route when driving back home can become a “learned basic action”, which is thus on a par with—to use his examples again—hitting a forehand slice in tennis or tying one’s shoelaces (or indeed, we might add, to the skills exercised in driving itself). However, we shall see that the former is a paradigm example of habit in the relevant literature. This suggests that assimilating the two cases stands in the way of providing a credible account of basic acts (see Douskos 2017a). For a critique of Pollard’s account of habit see Douskos (2017b).

  2. 2.

    This is clear in two foundational works: James (1981/1890: ch.4), Bryan and Harter (1899). Nowadays psychologists are more attentive to the pre-theoretical usage of “habit” and “skill”, but this does not mean that the distinction is always clearly observed. One reason is that, as Wood and Rünger (2016: 292) notice, “automaticity” is often used interchangeably with “habit”. This may lead one to use “habit” as a generic term that covers skills.

  3. 3.

    The term “impulsivity” is inspired by Garnder (2015), who argues that habit generates an impulse to act. But I do not mean to endorse any assumptions regarding the nature of impulses.

  4. 4.

    Important contributions to the literature on action-individuation include Anscombe (1963), Davidson (1980: essays 1–8).

  5. 5.

    Some examples: Ouellette and Wood (1998: 55), Verplanken and Wood (2006: 91), Graybiel (2008: 361), Wood and Neal (2009: 580), Verplanken and Aarts (1999: 104), Gardner et al. (2012: 2), Wood et al. (2014). These authors build automaticity in their definitions of habit, and claim that the automaticity of habit involves the absence of deliberation and intention. Regarding the automaticity of skill, see Logan (1985) for a review and discussion of earlier literature.

  6. 6.

    Pollard (2008: 55–56, Appendix), builds automaticity in the definition of habitual action, and the absence of deliberation in his definition of automaticity. Brett (1981: 357, 364) takes habit to be a form of automaticity, and claims that it involves the absence of deliberation. Regarding skill, the claim that the lower-level aspects of bodily actions are to be explained by the operation of automaticity is implied by the very idea of basic acts (e.g Enc 2003: ch.2; Papineau 2013; see also Wu 2015: 4); but we should keep in mind that not all bodily skills are plausibly basic. For discussion regarding the automaticity of bodily skill, see Fridland (2017a); for considerations against the view that sophisticated skills invariably involve automaticity, see Montero (2016).

  7. 7.

    This semantics originates in Hamblin (1958) and has been developed in several ways by subsequent semanticists.

  8. 8.

    Psychologists have long recognized that the automaticity of habit guides “routine action sequences”. See for instance Graybiel (2008: 361), Gardner (2015: 280), Wood and Neal (2007: 851), Cooper and Shallice (2006), Bargh and Gollwitzer (1994: 78). Wood and Rünger (2016: 292) observe that many authors take the sequencing of multiple acts to be a distinguishing feature of the automaticity of habit (e.g. Dezfouli et al. 2014).

  9. 9.

    This does not conflict with the point that habit and skill explanations typically address the “Why?” and “How?” question respectively. When an agent is A-ing by B-ing, the “How to A?” question corresponds to a “Why to B?” question Anscombe (1963). The question is different but the relation specified in the answer is the same. However, in what follows I shall articulate the problem I use to motivate the Diversity Claim in terms of the “How?” question. This is partly a matter of convenience.

  10. 10.

    Both of these are countenanced in psychological literature. Orbell and Verplanken (2010: 374) argue that the circumstances that may elicit a habitual act include “preceding actions in a sequence”. Aarts and Dijksterhuis (2000a, b) have argued that when one is in the habit of A-ing by B-ing, forming intention to A automatically activates the goal to B. I shall come back to the difference between these below.

  11. 11.

    For example, Wood and Neal (2007: 845) claim that “habits are repeated responses that come to be cued by recurring features of the context”. Orbell and Verplanken (2010: 374) claim that “habits are triggered by features of the context”, and are thus a form of “cue contingent automaticity”. In their review article on the psychology of habit, Wood and Rünger (2016: 292) take “activation by recurring context cues” to be a distinctive feature of the kind of automaticity habit exhibits. In the eight definitions of habit listed in Gardner (2015: 279), all but one make reference to stable features of the context as automatically eliciting habitual acts.

  12. 12.

    We should not be misled by the fact that in everyday habit ascriptions circumstances might be cited somehow obliquely: “She is in the habit of putting sugar in her tea” (i.e. when she is having tea). Moreover, in everyday explanations circumstances are part of the conversational background, and hence may not be explicitly mentioned. In other cases they might be too generic to afford a non-trivial specification and thus likely to be omitted in a habit ascriptions for pragmatic reasons.

  13. 13.

    This answer might appeal to research in psychology, which indicates that even if we hold everything else fixed the bodily trajectories will exhibit substantial variability across occasions. The inherent “trajectory redundancy” is a central feature of the motor system (Todorov and Jordan 2002; Haith and Krakauer 2013a; see Fridland 2017b for discussion). It is true that on this approach to motor control minimizing variability in the relevant respects is a central aspect of skill development. But this does not imply that variability can be completely eliminated in human agents; and in any case, this claim is restricted to what counts as ‘relevant respects’, whereas the variability claim at issue here includes all the spatiotemporal properties of overt movement.

  14. 14.

    Fridland (2014a) distinguishes between skills and mere (bodily) abilities. Annas (2011a) distinguishes between skill (understood as practical expertise) and “routine” (understood as akin to habit). But Annas claims that simple bodily capacities, such as tying one’s shoelaces (to use her example [2011a: 18fn.3]) sides with ‘routine’. While what counts as skill for these authors clearly exhibits variability, I do no think that these distinctions withstand scrutiny. Nevertheless, I do not want to rule out the possibility that in some cases the detailed bodily movements or stretches of bodily activity by way of which one acts are so inflexible and reflex-like that they should be explained by the operation of impulsivity (there is some evidence pointing to this direction; see Haith and Krakauer 2013b: 15–16 on “motor habit”; see also the discussion “habitual lags” in Toner et al. 2015). The claims defended here imply no constraints on which kind of automaticity can be operative at which level in the structure of action.

  15. 15.

    Much research on bodily skill addresses the question of which properties are attended to and which are not, and how skill learning involves changes in the patterns of attention. There is some controversy regarding which exactly aspects of bodily action are attended and which are not (Montero 2010, 2016), but the idea that one cannot direct her attention to all the properties of a bodily action is hardly controversial.

  16. 16.

    As Smithies (2011: 250) observes in discussing these two conceptions, “[i]n cognitive science, attention is usually defined in terms of its functional role, rather than its phenomenology” (2011: 250).

  17. 17.

    It is only certain core aspects of this view that are apposite here. Though he does not consider infinitival questions, Koralus allows that any task may consist in sub-tasks, and hence that attention to the main task might consist in sensitivity to “How to A?” questions. But his claim that questions encode completion conditions makes hard to see how he can account for the continuous (processual) mode of guidance exemplified in skilled bodily activity (see below). Wu’s (2011; 2015) account of attention is also closely related to the conception sketched above. Wu (2011: 52) claims that attention is metaphysically necessary to bodily guidance, and hence bodily skill, for reasons akin to the ones adduced here. It is a consequence of Wu’s view that habit dispenses with attention, a consequence he seems happy to endorse (2015: 5–6).

  18. 18.

    This does not imply that there is always a way, or more than one way, to successfully resolve the “How?” question. But even so, the “How?” question must still be open for the agent. For no skill exercise is guaranteed to succeed, and there are many ways to fail.

  19. 19.

    Bargh and Chartrand (2000) notice that the literature on skill development is concerned with goal-dependent automaticity, a claim repeated by Moors and DeHouver (2007: 17). See also Bargh (1997: 28–29). A similar claim is implied in Logan (1985: 368). Stanley and Krakauer (2013: 5) write “skill can be considered the practice-related improvement in a goal-directed action”. Fridland (2014b: 2741) concurs, but adds that we should add explicit reference to attention to this definition. The claim that goal-dependence is a feature of spontaneousness is widely shared.

  20. 20.

    A point of clarification: features of the environment can elicit a habitual act, and can guide the exercise of a skill. These are likewise circumstances. I say that the peculiar circumstances of the occasion guide the exercise of a skill to mark the fact that, in contrast to habit, the agent need not (and typically has not) encountered these circumstances before. As explain below, this is an important difference between spontaneousness and impulsivity.

  21. 21.

    It is important to distinguish action slips, which are due to sheer absent-mindedness, from other superficially similar mistakes that might be due to failures of judgment or weakness of will. Amaya (2013) provides a discussion of the relevant distinctions. As Amaya (2013: 12) explains, the distinguishing mark of action slips is that “[slips] have a quick and easy cure: awareness of an imminent slip is enough to prevent it”.

  22. 22.

    As Ouellette and Wood (1998: 55) observe, there is general agreement that the automaticity of habit involves diminishing attention (see also Graybiel 2008: 361; Wood et al. 2014: 378–79). Other definitions often figure the feature of (diminishing) awareness, rather than attention (van t’Riet et al. 2011: 586; Nilsen et al. 2012: 1). There are important questions regarding the relation between awareness and attention in habitual acts, which I set aside here.

  23. 23.

    Here I rely on the discussion of how habit-intrusions activate goals that interfere with intentions in Danner et al. (2011). See Neal et al. (2012) for a criticism of this second view by proponents of the first view.

  24. 24.

    So whether impulsivity automatically activates an impulse to B as on the first view, or a goal-state to B as on the second view, what matters is that the agent fails to detect its inconsistency with her intention to A (or to [A by C-ing]). Intentions are formed on the basis of deliberation, and their formation is subject to the normative constraints of consistency with other intentions and knowledge of the agent (Bratman 1987, inter alia). But as a goal or an impulse is automatically activated, the agent does not have the opportunity to bring the norms of practical reason to bear. This explains why automatically activated goals or impulses often defy such consistency constraints, and thus conflict with the agent’s intentions. It is this common feature of automatically activated goals and impulses that matters here. So the term impulsivity is meant to be neutral with respect to these two views on the automaticity of habit, though on the second view it might be a misnomer, given the different theoretical associations of “impulse” and “goal” in psychology.

  25. 25.

    Amaya (2016) argues that basic acts are immune from action slips. I argue that this is a distinctive property of bodily skills, basic or otherwise.

  26. 26.

    I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this second worry.

  27. 27.

    Current research suggests that the tendency to make action slips is related to factors other than ‘habit-strength’ (i.e. the degree to which automaticity is established), which is to say the extent to which automaticity determines the course of action depends on additional factors. These include factors that vary irregularly from one occasion to another, such as acute stress, fatigue, or preoccupation with other matters. So even for well-established habits, the degree in which impulsivity determines a course of action varies from one occasion to another; attention co-varies accordingly. See Wood et al. (2014): 377–380 for discussion of the relevant research.

  28. 28.

    In the example above, where the driver is about to make a slip, sufficient sensitivity with respect to the “How?” question would lead one to refrain from manifesting a habit. But impulsivity will cease to operate to the extent that the driver becomes sensitive to the “How to A?” question, even if it turns out that she is on the right track (a false alarm, as it were). Notice, though, that one would still be manifesting that habit, for the habit still explains the act. This suggests that automaticity is not an essential characteristic of habit.


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I would like to thank Jennifer Hornsby for assisting with the research on which this paper is based.

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Douskos, C. The spontaneousness of skill and the impulsivity of habit. Synthese 196, 4305–4328 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1658-7

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  • Habit
  • Skill
  • Automaticity
  • Multi-track dispositions