Compared to other animals, humans are better at resisting the influence of external forces and independently generating their own actions. Having been one of the central issues in philosophy for centuries, the personal agency of humans has also become a matter of interest in psychological research.
Properties of Agency
According to social cognitive theory approach, personal agency is comprised of four properties: Intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-reflectiveness (Bandura 2006). The sense of agency requires (1) intentional planning of actions; (2) predicting likely outcomes of actions; (3) regulating own behavior to reach goals; and (4) examining own performance and adjusting when necessary (Bandura 2006).
The sense of agency is closely related to the concept of self-efficacy which refers to the belief of being capable of accomplishing a goal (Bandura 2006). People with high perceived self-efficacy have a strong sense of agency as they perceive themselves as the subject shaping the course of events in their lives. Past research suggested that high self-efficacy was related to increased motivation, performance, and resilience (Bandura 2000).
Development of Sense of Agency
Children are not born with a sense of agency. Starting with the first months, infants begin realizing their control over their own bodies and the environment (Mandler 1992). By perceiving the causal relationships behind actions that were directed at them as well as their own actions, infants slowly develop a sense of agency (Bandura 2006; Haggard 2017; Mandler 1992). With the acquisition of language, having been referred to by personal names, children further differentiate themselves as separate self-governing individuals (Lewis and Brooks-Gunn 1979).
Neural Correlates of Agency
Recent neuropsychological research has examined potential brain mechanisms underlying the sense of agency. A meta-analysis suggested that temporoparietal junction area in the brain is related to “non-agency,” or in other words, the perception of not being the agent behind an effect (Haggard 2017). Recent findings also suggested that the connectivity between frontal and prefrontal motor areas might have a key role in the production of the sense of agency (Haggard 2017).
Models of Agency
Individuals differ in their way of obtaining a sense of agency. The disjoint agency, which is characteristic of independent cultures, is based on sustaining personal control over the events in life and protecting oneself against the influence of external forces (Markus and Kitayama 2003). The conjoint agency, which is characteristic of interdependent cultures, is built around the emphasis on maintaining the harmony within the ingroup and feeling a part of a greater whole (Markus and Kitayama 2003). People can also exercise a proxy agency which refers to reaching goals by influencing others who have access to the resources needed (Bandura 2006).
Lack of Sense of Agency
Lacking a normal level of sense of agency can lead to adverse consequences (Haggard 2017). Reduced sense of agency is a common symptom observed in patients suffering from depression who lack a sense of perceived control over the events in their lives (Harrow et al. 2009). Schizophrenia patients similarly experience a loss of sense of agency over their actions (Maeda et al. 2013). People with low self-efficacy are also less likely to maintain desired health behaviors (Schwarzer and Renner 2000).
Having a sense of agency is desired for most individuals, and past literature illustrated many examples of how it is related to desired outcomes. People with high self-efficacy are better at reaching their goals and have better mental as well as physical health. Although individuals and cultures might differ regarding what type of agency is more valued, a general sense of agency is still considered a fundamental psychological need.
- Harrow, M., Hansford, B. G., & Astrachan-Fletcher, E. B. (2009). Locus of control: Relation to schizophrenia, to recovery, and to depression and psychosis – A 15-year longitudinal study. Psychiatry Research, 168, 186–192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2008.06.002.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
- Maeda, T., Takahata, K., Muramatsu, T., Okimura, T., Koreki, A., Iwashita, S., Mimura, M., & Kato, M. (2013). Reduced sense of agency in chronic schizophrenia with predominant negative symptoms. Psychiatry Research, 209, 386–392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2013.04.017.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
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