An analysis of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behaviour in psychology
Connally, Samuel R.
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- © 1984 Samuel R Connally. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.
Psychology, as a separate scientific discipline, was derived from philosophy and physiology and, in part, adopted their concepts and language. Initially psychology perceived its subject matter to be volition, among other mental constructs. In response to internal tensions, involving methodology, more intense interest was given to the study of behaviour. Behaviouristic psychology proposed the abolition of mental constructs, and sought to interpret behaviour in mechanistic terms. Two powerful methods were developed to study behaviour objectively; the classical and instrumental conditioning procedures. The use of the two conditioning procedures generated much controversy concerning the classification of behaviour as well as the necessary and sufficient conditions for learning.
However, the behavioural taxonomy generated by its scientific study has been inadequately formulated and there have been fundamental confusions about the concept of behaviour itself. These confusions have been highlighted by the recent experimental data from two important areas of research in the experimental study of learning; (i) autoshaping (ii) the operant conditioning of autonomic responses. These data challenge the widely held view that all behaviour may be classified, after Skinner, as operants or respondents.
ConventionaL psychological wisdom has conflated the concepts of 'voluntary' and 'involuntary' with the concepts of 'operant' and 'respondent', respectively. 'Respondents' by definition have specifiable antecedents, whereas 'operants' do not. The inability to note specific antecedents to instrumental behaviour is reflected in the original studies using animals by Thorndike. Instrumental (operant) behaviour was seen as 'impulsive', 'emitted' or 'spontaneous' - terms which have traditionally been associated with voluntary behaviour. Inadvertently, under the influence of Skinner, the vitalistic connotations of the operant were hidden from view and protected from criticism. Concomitant with these developments, the role of the central nervous system in the production and control of movement is being re-interpreted by neurophysiologists. In this field mentalistic and vitalistic accounts of behaviour have emerged at the highest levels. Although physical accounts of behaviour do not have logical priority over mental accounts, the former have the advantage of being more open to direct experimental investigation. The apparent paradox of a so-called mechanistic, physicalistic psychology and physiology accounting for behaviour in terms of vitalistic and mentalistic concepts prompted this analysis of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behaviour.
An historical approach is adopted which draws on both primary and secondary sources in psychology, physiology, philosophy and medicine. References to voluntary and involuntary processes from the early Greeks to the present day, are summarized and their relationship with the broader intellectual issues is broached. The distinction between voluntary and involuntary behaviours arose early in western intellectual history and the concept of 'voluntary behaviour' was discussed, largely within the context of moral responsibility. At various times the mentalistic concepts of soul, mind and free-will were proposed as its source.
The idea that voluntary movement issued from the 'free-will' received its greatest support from Christian theology. Ecclesiastical monopoly of educated thought ensured that this interpretation of behaviour was firmly established in the institutions of western culture. With the rise of western science, the language of this view and its connotations intruded into the language of the disciplines of modern philosophy and physiology, among others.
The term 'voluntary', referring to behaviour, has undergone numerous and subtle changes in meaning, and the separation of voluntary and involuntary behaviour parallels several other important conceptual dichotomies. Two of these are the'mind-body problem' and the 'mechanism vs vitalism' debate. Contemporary literature in the fields of psychology, physiology and philosophy reflects the fact that these conceptual issues have not been resolved, as once was thought; but are active points of debate.
Psychology is presently changing its understanding of behaviour, and today the voluntary-involuntary distinction may be maintained by the operational definition of a voluntary response being an 'instructed response'. Instructed responses as voluntary responses have been extensively used in both experimental and clinical studies of behaviour. This operational definition, in contrast to others, has brought the voluntary response under direct experimental scrutiny and deprived it of its 'uncaused' attribute. Its use has produced much needed empirical data concerning the metric parameters of movement.
No one method of study or theoretical model is likely to explain behaviour in the·near future, and such an explanation will not be derived from experimental evidence alone. It is suggested that future interpretations of behaviour will use concepts derived from such technical fields as engineering and cybernetics as well as from psychology and physiology. Perhaps no current conceptual analysis can give us even partial insight into the future development of self-regulating machines; the future development of such machines, however may shed light onto our current concepts.
- Department of Psychology, The University of Hull
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