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Volition, Agency and Responsibility

  • Start date: 01 October 2012
  • End date: 30 September 2015

The concept of individuals as free agents, who make voluntary actions, is the basis of modern societies. Yet voluntary actions have proved difficult to study scientifically.  This project will study the cognitive mechanisms and social impact of three key aspects of information-processing in the human mind and brain that underlie voluntary action: intention, sense of agency, and social responsibility. 

The first component focuses on the psychological intentions, and neural events that precede a voluntary action. A series of experiments, conducted with ethical permission, investigates the relation between the subjective experience of deciding to act and the causal cascade in the brain that leads to action. The second component focuses on the ‘sense of agency’, ie the feeling that one’s actions cause or control events in the outside world.  This pervasive but elusive feeling is crucial to normal mental life, as it forms a key component of the self. 

A series of quantitative studies aim to investigate the cognitive processes that produce the sense of agency. These are linked to wider societal issues, such as legal responsibility. A third subproject investigates how different types of social interaction between agents may influence the sense of agency.