There are situations, however, where our normal sense of agency is disrupted. Perhaps the most striking example is alien control delusions. Patients with these delusions report that particular body movements are controlled by some external entity (Spence, 2001). A reduced sense of agency is also a defining characteristic of hypnotic responding. Individuals who are highly hypnotisable will often report that actions they make in response to hypnotic suggestions occur without their conscious intention. Hypnosis provides a marvellous opportunity to study sense of agency alteration. Whereas patients with alien control delusions are relatively rare and often unwilling or impractical research participants, hypnosis can be used in experimental designs with members of the general public to create safe, fully reversible instances of agency change in the lab (Oakley& Halligan, 2013).
Although a reduced sense of agency is a striking feature of hypnotic responding there has been considerable variation and some conceptual confusion in the way that agency has been described. Different authors have tended to use their own terminology and it has not always been clear if everyone has been talking about the exactly same phenomena. Similarly, no canonical method has emerged for assessing sense of agency with authors, both in the field of hypnosis and more broadly, asking participants about their experiences of agency in quite different ways. In my research I aimed to address these challenges by developing a psychometric scale to quantify experiences of agency alteration.
The Sense of Agency Rating Scale (SOARS; Polito, Barnier, & Woody, 2013) was created by reviewing the literature on agency and identifying the most common terms and phrases that have been used to describe what it is like to be an agent. I initially compiled a fairly lengthy scale and administered it to participants as part of a hypnotisability screening. Over a series of studies I refined this measure into a 10-item scale that describes the phenomenology of self generated actions. I found that the subjective experience of agency is comprised of two distinct factors: Involuntariness, representing reduced feelings of control over actions, and Effortlessness, representing feelings of absorption and automaticity. This scale has been very effective at assessing agency change in hypnosis. I’ve found that alterations in agency during hypnosis do not occur suddenly, as if someone has flicked a light switch, but rather that they arise and fade over time, depending on the specific suggestions administered and the individual’s capacities (Polito, Barnier, Woody, & Connors, 2014).
In my current research I’m adapting this scale to map agency changes in a range of contexts outside of hypnosis. In particular, I’m interested in why alterations to the sense of agency are sometimes experienced as highly disturbing (for example, passivity phenomena in schizophrenia), but in other situations are experienced as highly pleasurable and beneficial (for example, when expert sportspeople or musicians describe performing in an effortless state of ‘flow’).
More on this in another post and in the meantime you can follow me on Twitter @vincepsy
Oakley, D. A., & Halligan, P. W. (2013). Hypnotic suggestion: opportunities for cognitive neuroscience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14 (8), 565–576. doi:10.1038/nrn3538
Polito, V., Barnier, A. J., & Woody, E. Z. (2013). Developing the Sense of Agency Rating Scale (SOARS): An empirical measure of agency disruption in hypnosis. Consciousness and Cognition, 22(3), 684–696. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2013.04.003
Polito, V., Barnier, A. J., Woody, E. Z., & Connors, M. H. (2014). Measuring Agency Change Across the Domain of Hypnosis. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice March 2014, 1 (1), 3–19. doi:10.1037/cns0000010
Spence, S. (2001). Alien control: From phenomenology to cognitive neurobiology. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 8 (2), 163–172. doi:10.1353/ppp.2001.0017