Voluntary Behavior

James’s Analysis of Voluntary Behavior. According to James’s ideo-motor theory of behav- ior, an idea of a certain action causes that action to occur. He believed that in the vast majority of cases, ideas of actions flowed immediately and auto- matically (habitually or reflexively) into behavior. This automatic process continues unless mental effort is expended to purposively select and hold an idea of interest in consciousness. For James, volun- tary action and mental effort were inseparable. The ideas of various behavioral possibilities are retained from previous experience, and their recollection is a prerequisite to voluntary behavior: “A supply of the various movements that are possible, left in the memory by experiences of their involuntary per- formance, is thus the prerequisite of the voluntary life” (James, 1892/1985). From the ideas of various possible actions, one is selected for atten- tion, and that is the one that causes behavior and continues to do so as long as the idea is attended to. Therefore, “what holds attention determines action” (James, 1892/1985). The will func- tions, then, by selecting one from among many ideas of action we are interested in doing. By fiat, the will expends energy to hold the idea of interest in consciousness, thus inhibiting other ideas: “Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will” (James, 1892/1985, p. 317). It is by controlling our ideas of behavior that we control our actual behav- ior. Because ideas cause behavior, it is important to attend to those ideas that result in behavior deemed desirable under the circumstances: “The terminus of the psychological process in volition, the point to which the will is directly applied, is always an idea” (James, 1892/1985). So if we com- bine James’s theories of volition and emotion, what we think determines what we do, and what we do determines how we feel.

James believed that bodily events cause thoughts and that thoughts cause behavior. Thus, on the mind–body question, he was an interactionist. Exactly how the mind and body interacted was not known to James and, to him, the nature of the inter- action may never be known. He said, “Nature in her unfathomable designs has mixed us of clay and flame, of brain and mind, that the two things hang

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