Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Disorders of Agency on a Spectrum

Today's post is by Valentina Petrolini (University of the Basque Country – UPV/EHU). Here she talks about a recent paper she wrote, “Too Much or Too Little? Disorders of Agency on a Spectrum” published open access in a special issue of the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy on Bounds of Rationality.

Valentina Petrolini


“Rock You like a Hurricane” has been playing on repeat in my head since yesterday. I am unsure where it came from, although I am afraid a binge session of Stranger Things might have something to do with it. Despite my attempts, getting rid of the song proves surprisingly difficult. In my paper I characterize these episodes as mild cases of hypoagency. An action – in this case a mental one – is attributed to an agent, who is unsure about having initiated it and lacks a robust sense of control over it.

Some instances of hypoagency – such as having an 80’s song stuck in your head – strike us as relatively innocent. We may even imagine circumstances in which similar mind-wandering episodes may be beneficial. Assume that I have an important interview coming up and I cannot concentrate because my thoughts keep drifting away. Although my fantasizing might take a pessimistic turn, it might also allow me to come up with original ideas that help me succeed in the interview.

In an interesting study, Baird and colleagues show that some forms of mind-wandering might indeed support problem-solving. Other experiences of hypoagency are undoubtedly less benign. Think about phenomena such as auditory verbal hallucinations (AVH), in which a person loses grip over her own thoughts and experiences them as alien. Longden describes her voice-hearing experience along these lines: the first voices sound like “a running commentary”, but over time they grow in number and intensity and start issuing threats and commands over which she has no control.

However, there are also situations in which people experience hyperagency. A clinically-relevant example concerns cases of pathological guilt, commonly experienced by people diagnosed with schizophrenia. For instance, Saks talks about being filled with anxiety when reading the newspaper, because she would blame herself for every violent crime reported in the area. Some cases of hyperagency do not qualify as pathological. 

An interesting phenomenon in this sense is false confessions, in which people take responsibility for crimes that they have not committed. Although the idea of innocent people willing to face legal charges appears counterintuitive, studies in forensic psychology show that false confessions are relatively frequent. A famous case is portrayed in DuVernay’s series When They See Us and involves the men who came to be known as the “Exonerated Five”.

How should we think about different cases of disrupted agency? One important distinction concerns self-attribution versus feeling of agency. While self-attribution may be correct or incorrect, the feeling of agency comes in degrees. Extreme cases of hypoagency – such as AVH – exemplify situations in which self-attribution is incorrect and the subject lacks a robust feeling of agency. By contrast, in mind-wandering the perceived lack of agency usually fails to be accompanied by misattribution: even if I can’t stop thinking about the Scorpions song, I do not perceive it as externally generated. 

Things are more complex with hyperagency. Both pathological guilt and false confessions exemplify situations in which self-attribution is incorrect and the subject reports a strong feeling of agency. The difference between these cases is thus likely to be one of degree, where quantitative factors such as duration or intensity may be taken as reliable indicators.