Précis of The illusion of conscious will

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Précis of The illusion of
conscious will

Daniel M. Wegner
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.
[email protected]
Abstract: The experience of conscious will is the feeling that we are doing things. This feeling occurs for many things we do, conveying
to us again and again the sense that we consciously cause our actions. But the feeling may not be a true reading of what is happening in
our minds, brains, and bodies as our actions are produced. The feeling of conscious will can be fooled. This happens in clinical disorders
such as alien hand syndrome, dissociative identity disorder, and schizophrenic auditory hallucinations. And in people without disorders,
phenomena such as hypnosis, automatic writing, Ouija board spelling, water dowsing, facilitated communication, speaking in tongues,
spirit possession, and trance channeling also illustrate anomalies of will – cases when actions occur without will or will occurs without
action. This book brings these cases together with research evidence from laboratories in psychology to explore a theory of apparent
mental causation. According to this theory, when a thought appears in consciousness just prior to an action, is consistent with the action,
and appears exclusive of salient alternative causes of the action, we experience conscious will and ascribe authorship to ourselves for the
action. Experiences of conscious will thus arise from processes whereby the mind interprets itself – not from processes whereby mind
creates action. Conscious will, in this view, is an indication that we think we have caused an action, not a revelation of the causal sequence
by which the action was produced.
Keywords: apparent mental causation; automatism; conscious will; determinism; free will; perceived control
1. The illusion (Ch. 1)
purpose” is an indication of conscious will. It is also com-
mon, however, to speak of conscious will as a force of mind,
So, here you are, reading about conscious will. How could
a name for the causal link between our minds and our ac-
this have happened? One way to explain it would be to ex-
tions. One might assume that the experience of consciously
amine the causes of your behavior. A team of scientists
willing an action and the causation of the action by the per-
could study your reported thoughts, emotions, and motives,
son’s conscious mind are the same thing. As it turns out,
your genetics and your history of learning, experience, and
however, they are entirely distinct, and the tendency to con-
development, your social situation and culture, your mem-
fuse them is the source of the illusion of conscious will. So,
ories and reaction times, your physiology and neuro-
to begin, we will need to look into each in turn, first exam-
anatomy, and lots of other things as well. If they somehow
ining will as an experience and then considering will as a
had access to all the information they could ever want, the
causal force.
assumption of psychology is that they could uncover the
mechanisms that give rise to all your behavior, and so could
1.1.1. The experience of conscious will. Will is a feeling.
certainly explain why you are reading these words at this
David Hume was sufficiently impressed by this idea that he
moment. However, another way to explain the fact of your
proposed to define the will as “nothing but the internal im-
reading these lines is just to say that you decided to begin
pression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly
reading. You consciously willed what you are doing.
give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception
The ideas of conscious will and psychological mechanism
of our mind” (Hume 1739/1888, p. 399, emphasis in origi-
have an oil and water relationship, having never been prop-
erly reconciled. One way to put them together is to say that
the mechanistic approach is the explanation preferred for
Daniel M. Wegner is Professor of Psychology at Har-
scientific purposes, but that the person’s experience of con-
vard University. Since his 1974 Ph.D. from Michigan
scious will is utterly convincing and important to the person
State University, he has published six books (including
– and so must be understood scientifically as well. The
White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts) and more
mechanisms underlying the experience of will are them-
than a hundred articles. His research on thought sup-
selves a fundamental topic of scientific study.
pression, mental control, action identification, trans-
active memory, and conscious will has been funded by
the National Science Foundation and by the National
1.1. Conscious will
Institute of Mental Health. A 1996–1997 Fellow of the
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences,
Conscious will is usually understood in one of two ways. It
he has served as Associate Editor of Psychological Re-
is common to talk about conscious will as something that is
view and currently is on the Board of Reviewing Editors
experienced when we perform an action: Actions feel willed
of Science.
or not, and this feeling of voluntariness or doing a thing “on
© 2005 Cambridge University Press
0140-525X/04 $12.50

Wegner: Précis of The illusion of conscious will
nal). This definition puts the person’s experience at the very
By the looks of it, the alien hand is quite willful. On the
center of the whole concept – the will is not some cause or
other hand (as the pun drags on), however, the patient does
force or motor in a person, but rather is the personal con-
not experience these actions as consciously willed.
scious feeling of such causing, forcing, or motoring. Hume’s
Brain damage is not the only way that the experience of
definition makes sense because the occurrence of this con-
will can be undermined. Consider, for instance, the feel-
scious experience is an absolute must for anyone to claim to
ings of involuntariness that occur during hypnosis. Per-
have done something that he or she consciously willed.
haps the most profound single effect of hypnosis is the
Without an experience of willing, even actions that look
feeling that your actions are happening to you, rather than
entirely voluntary from the outside still fall short of quali-
that you are doing them (Lynn et al. 1990). To produce
fying as truly willed. Intentions, plans, and other thoughts
this experience, a hypnotist might suggest, “Please hold
can be experienced, and still the action is not willed if the
your arm out to your side. Now, concentrate on the feel-
person says it was not. If a person plans to take a shower, for
ings in your arm. What you will find is that your arm is be-
example, and says that she intends to do it as she climbs into
coming heavy. It feels as though a great weight were
the water, spends 15 minutes in there scrubbing up nicely,
pulling it down. It is so very heavy. It is being pulled down,
and then comes out reporting that she indeed seems to have
down toward the ground. Your arm is heavy, very heavy. It
had a shower – but yet also reports not feeling she had con-
is getting so heavy you can’t resist. Your arm is falling,
sciously willed her showering – who are we to protest? Con-
falling down toward the ground.” With enough of this pat-
sciously willing an action requires a feeling of doing (Ans-
ter, many listeners will indeed experience the arm becom-
field & Wegner 1996), a kind of internal “oomph” that
ing heavy, and some will even find their arm falling down.
somehow certifies authentically that one has done the ac-
When quizzed on it, these individuals often report that
tion. If the person did not get that feeling about her shower,
they felt no sense of moving their arm voluntarily, but
then even if we climbed in with her to investigate, there is
rather experienced the downward movement as something
no way we could establish for sure whether she consciously
that happened to them. This does not occur for everyone
willed her showering.
in this situation, only for some, but it nonetheless indicates
The fact that experiences of conscious will can only be es-
that the experience of will can be manipulated in a volun-
tablished by self-reports (“I showered, yes I did”) would be
tary action.
quite all right if the self-reports always corresponded with
In the case of hypnotic involuntariness, the person has a
some other outward indication of the experience. However,
very clear and well-rehearsed idea of the upcoming action.
this correspondence does not always happen. The experi-
Admittedly, this idea of the action is really phrased more as
ence of will that is so essential for the occurrence of con-
an expectation (“My arm will fall”) than as an intention (“I
sciously willed action does not always accompany actions
will lower my arm”), but it nonetheless occurs before the
that appear by other indications to be willed.
action when an intention normally happens, and it provides
Consider, for example, the case of people who have alien
a distinct preview of the action that is to come (Kirsch &
hand syndrome, a neuropsychological disorder in which a
Lynn 1998b; Spanos 1986b). Hypnotic involuntariness thus
person experiences one hand as operating with a mind of its
provides an example of the lack of experience of will that is
own. Alien hand patients typically experience one hand as
yet more perplexing than alien hand syndrome. With alien
acting autonomously. They do not experience willing its ac-
hand, the person simply does not know what the hand will
tions, and may find it moving at cross-purposes with their
do, but with hypnosis, conscious will is lacking – even when
conscious intention. This syndrome is often linked with
knowledge of the action is present. And without the expe-
damage to the middle of the frontal lobe on the side of the
rience of willing, even this foreknowledge of the action
brain opposite the affected hand (Gasquoine 1993). Banks
seems insufficient to move the action into the “consciously
and colleagues (1989) report an alien hand patient whose
willed” category. If it does not feel as though you did it, then
left hand would tenaciously grope for and grasp any nearby ob-
it does not seem that the will was operating.
ject, pick and pull at her clothes, and even grasp her throat dur-
Another case of the absence of an experience of will oc-
ing sleep. . . . She slept with the arm tied to prevent nocturnal
curs in table-turning, a curious phenomenon discovered in
misbehavior. She never denied that her left arm and hand be-
the spiritualist movement in Europe and the United States
longed to her, although she did refer to her limb as though it
in the mid-nineteenth century (Ansfield & Wegner 1996;
were an autonomous entity. (Banks et al. 1989, p. 456)
Carpenter 1888). To create this effect, a group of people sits
Should the alien hand’s movements be classed as willed or
around a table with their hands on its surface. If they are
unwilled? On the one hand (pun can’t be helped), the alien
convinced that the table might move as the result of spirit
hand seems to do some fairly complicated things, acts we
intervention (or if they are even just hoping for such an ef-
might class as willful and voluntary if we were just watch-
fect), and sit patiently waiting for such movement, it is of-
ing and hadn’t learned of the patient’s lamentable loss of
ten found that the table does start to move after some time.
control. In the case of another patient, for example,
It might even move about the room or begin rotating so
quickly that the participants can barely keep up. Carpenter
While playing checkers on one occasion, the left hand made a
(1888, pp. 292–93) observed “all this is done, not merely
move he did not wish to make, and he corrected the move with
without the least consciousness on the part of the perform-
the right hand; however, the left hand, to the patient’s frustra-
ers that they are exercising any force of their own, but for
tion, repeated the false move. On other occasions, he turned
the pages of the book with one hand while the other tried to
the most part under the full conviction that they are not.”
close it; he shaved with the right hand while the left one un-
Incidentally, table-turning was sufficiently controversial
zipped his jacket; he tried to soap a washcloth while the left
that it attracted the attention of the chemist and physicist
hand kept putting the soap back in the dish; and he tried to
Michael Faraday, who proceeded to test the source of the
open a closet with the right hand while the left one closed it.
table movement. He placed force measurement devices be-
(Banks et al. 1989, p. 457)
tween participants’ hands and the table, and found that the

Wegner: Précis of The illusion of conscious will
Table 1. Conditions of human action
come to realize that conscious will is not inherent in action
– there are actions that have it and actions that do not.
Feeling of Doing
No Feeling of Doing
1.1.2. The force of conscious will. Will is not only an ex-
Normal voluntary action
perience, but also a force. Because of this, it is tempting to
Not Doing
Illusion of Control
Normal inaction
think that the conscious experience of will is a direct per-
ception of the force of will. The feeling that one is pur-
posefully not having a cookie, for example, can easily be
taken as an immediate perception of one’s conscious mind
source of the movement was their hands and not the table
causing this act of self-control. We seem to experience the
(Faraday 1853).
force within us that keeps the cookie out of our mouths, but
Such examples of the separation of action from the ex-
the force is not the same thing as the experience.
perience of will suggest that it is useful to draw a distinction
When conscious will is described as a force, it can take
between them. Table 1 shows four basic conditions of hu-
different forms. Will can come in little dabs to produce in-
man action – the combinations that arise when we empha-
dividual acts, or it can be a more long-lasting property of a
size the distinction between action and the sense of acting
person, a kind of inner strength or resolve. Just as a dish
willfully. The upper left corner contains the expected cor-
might have hotness or an automobile might have the prop-
respondence of action and the feeling of doing – the case
erty of being red, a person seems to have will, a quality of
when we do something and feel also that we are doing it.
power that causes his or her actions. The force may be with
This is the noncontroversial case, or perhaps the assumed
us. Such will can be strong or weak, and so can serve to ex-
human condition. The lower right corner is also noncon-
plain things such as one person’s steely persistence in the
troversial, the instance when we are not doing anything and
attempt to dig a swimming pool in the back yard, for exam-
feel we are not.
ple, or another person’s knee-buckling weakness for choco-
The upper right – the case of no feeling of will when
late. The notion of strength of will has been an important
there is in fact the occurrence of action – encompasses the
intuitive explanation of human behavior since the ancients
examples we have been inspecting thus far. The movement
(Charlton 1988), and it has served throughout the history of
of alien hands, the case of hypnotic suggestion of arm heav-
psychology as the centerpiece of the psychology of will. The
iness, and table-turning all fit this quadrant, as they involve
classic partition of the mind into three functions includes
no feeling of doing in what appear otherwise to be volun-
cognition, emotion, and conation – the will or volitional
tary actions. These can be classed in general as automa-
component (e.g., James 1890).
tisms. The other special quadrant of the table includes cases
The will in this traditional way of thinking is an explana-
of the illusion of control. Ellen Langer (1975) used this
tory entity of the first order. In other words, it explains lots
term to describe instances when people have the feeling
of things but nothing explains it. As Joseph Buchanan
that they are doing something when they actually are not
(1812) described it, “Volition has commonly been consid-
doing anything.
ered by metaphysical writers, as consisting in the exertion
The illusion of control is acute in our interactions with
of an innate power, or constituent faculty of the mind, de-
machines – as when we do not know whether our push of
nominated will, concerning whose intrinsic nature it is fruit-
an elevator button or Coke machine selection has done any-
less and unnecessary to inquire” (p. 298). At the extreme,
thing, yet sense that it has. The illusion is usually studied
of course, this view of the will makes the scientific study of
with judgments of contingency (e.g., Matute 1996) by hav-
it entirely out of the question, and suggests instead that it
ing people try to tell whether they are causing a particular
ought to be worshiped. Pointing to will as a force in a per-
effect, for example, turning on a light, by doing something,
son that causes the person’s action is the same kind of ex-
such as pushing a button, when the button and the light are
planation as saying that God has caused an event. This is a
not perfectly connected and the light may flash randomly
stopper that trumps any other explanation, but that still
by itself. But we experience the illusion, too, when we roll
seems not to explain anything at all in a predictive sense.
dice or flip coins in a certain way, hoping that we will thus
Just as we cannot tell what God is going to do, we cannot
be able to influence the outcome. It even happens some-
predict what the will is likely to do either.
times that we feel we have contributed to the outcome of a
The notion that will is a force residing in a person has a
sporting event on TV just by our presence in the room (“Did
further problem. Hume remarked on this when he described
I just jinx them by running off to the fridge?”).
the basic difficulty that occurs whenever a person perceives
Most of the things we do in everyday life seem to fall
causality in an object. Essentially, he pointed out that causal-
along the “normal” diagonal in this fourfold table. Action
ity is not a property inhering in objects. For instance, when
and the experience of will usually correspond, so we feel we
we see a bowling ball go scooting down the lane and smash-
are doing things willfully when we actually do them, and
ing into the pins, it certainly seems as though the ball has
feel we are not doing something when in truth we have not
some kind of causal force in it. The ball is the cause and the
done it. Still, the automatisms and illusions of control that
explosive reaction of the pins is the effect. Hume pointed
lie off this diagonal remind us that action and the feeling of
out, though, that you cannot see causation in something, but
doing are not locked together inevitably. They come apart
must only infer it from the constant relation between cause
often enough that one wonders whether they may be pro-
and effect. Every time the ball rolls into the pins, they
duced by separate systems in the mind. The processes of
bounce away. Ergo, the ball caused the pins to move. But
mind that produce the experience of will may be quite dis-
there is no property of causality nestled somewhere in that
tinct from the processes of mind that produce the action it-
ball, or hanging somewhere in space between the ball and
self. As soon as we accept the idea that the will should be
pins, that somehow works this magic. Causation is an event,
understood as an experience of the person who acts, we
not a thing or a characteristic or attribute of an object.

Wegner: Précis of The illusion of conscious will
In the same sense, causation cannot be a property of a
held tight to the Ptolemaic idea that the sun revolves
person’s conscious intention. You can’t see your conscious
around the earth, in part because this notion fit their larger
intention causing an action, but can only infer this from the
religious conception of the central place of the earth in
regular relation between intention and action. Normally,
God’s universe. In exactly this way, conscious will fits a
when you intend things, they happen. Hume remarked in
larger conception – our understanding of causal agents.
A Treatise on Human Nature (1739/1888) that the “con-
stant union” and “inference of the mind” that establishes
1.2.1. Causal agency. Most adult humans have a very well-
causality in physical events must also give rise to causality
developed idea of a particular sort of entity, an entity that
in “actions of the mind.” He said:
does things. We appreciate that a dog, for example, will of-
Some have asserted . . . that we feel an energy, or power, in our
ten do things that are guided not by standard causal princi-
own mind. . . . But to convince us how fallacious this reasoning
ples, but rather by a teleological or purposive system. Dogs
is, we need only consider . . . that the will being here consider’d
often seem to be goal-oriented, as they behave in ways that
as a cause, has no more a discoverable connexion with its ef-
only seem to be understandable in terms of goals (includ-
fects, than any material cause has with its proper effect. . . . In
ing some fairly goofy ones, yes, but goals nonetheless). They
short, the actions of the mind are, in this respect, the same with
move toward things that they subsequently seem to have
those of matter. We perceive only their constant conjunction;
wanted (because they consume them or sniff them), and
nor can we ever reason beyond it. No internal impression has
they move away from things that we can imagine they might
an apparent energy, more than external objects have. (pp. 400–
not like (because the things are scary or loud or seem to be
waving a rolled-up newspaper). Dogs, like horses and fish
Hume realized, then, that calling the will a force in a per-
and crickets and even some plants, seem to be understand-
son’s consciousness – even in one’s own consciousness –
able through a special kind of thinking about goal-oriented
must always overreach what we can see (or even intro-
entities that does not help us at all in thinking about bricks,
spect), and so should be understood as an attribution or in-
buttons, or other inanimate objects.
The property of goal seeking is not just something we at-
This is not to say that the concept of will power is useless.
tribute to living things, as we may appreciate this feature in
Rather, Hume’s analysis suggests that the concepts of force
computers or robots or even thermostats. But the impor-
of will or will power must be accompanied by careful causal
tant characteristic of such goal-seeking entities is that we
inference. These ideas can be used as the basis for scientific
understand them in terms of where we think they are
theories of human behavior, certainly, as they serve as sum-
headed rather than in terms of where we think they have
maries of the degree of relationship that may exist between
been. Unlike a mere object, which moves or “acts” only
the mind and behavior. But we must be careful to distin-
when it has been caused to do so by some prior event, a
guish between such empirical will – the causality of the per-
causal agent moves or acts apparently on its own, in the pur-
son’s conscious thoughts as established by a scientific analy-
suit of some future state – the achievement of a goal. Fritz
sis of their covariation with the person’s behavior – and the
Heider (1958; Heider & Simmel 1944) observed that peo-
phenomenal will – the person’s reported experience of will.
ple perceive persons as causal agents – origins of events –
The empirical will can be measured by examining the de-
and that this is the primary way in which persons are un-
gree of covariation between the person’s self-reported con-
derstood in a manner that physical objects and events are
scious thought and the person’s action, and by assessing the
causal role of that thought in the context of other possible
Causal agency, in sum, is an important way in which peo-
causes of the action (and possible causes of the thought as
ple understand action, particularly human action. In the
process of understanding actions performed by oneself or
The empirical will – the actual relationship between
by another, the person will appreciate information about in-
mind and action – is a central topic of scientific psychology.
tentions, beliefs, desires, and plans, and will use this infor-
In psychology, clear indications of the empirical will can be
mation in discerning just what the agent is doing. The intu-
found whenever causal relationships are observed between
itive appeal of the idea of conscious will can be traced in
people’s thoughts, beliefs, intentions, plans, or other con-
part to the embedding of the experience of will, and of the
scious psychological states and their subsequent actions.
notion that will has a force, in the larger conception of
The feeling of consciously willing our action, in contrast, is
causal agency. Humans appear to be goal-seeking agents
not a direct readout of such scientifically verifiable will
who have the special ability to envision their goals con-
power. Rather, it is the result of a mental system whereby
sciously in advance of action. The experience of conscious
each of us estimates moment-to-moment the role that our
will feels like being a causal agent.
minds play in our actions.
1.2.2. Mechanisms and minds. We all know a lot about
agents and goals and desires and intentions, and use these
1.2. Mind perception
concepts all the time. These concepts are only useful, how-
Why would people mistake the experience of will for a
ever, for understanding a limited range of our experience.
causal mechanism? Why is it that the phenomenal will so
The movements of clock hands and raindrops and electric
easily overrides any amount of preaching by scientists about
trains, for example, can be understood in terms of causal re-
the mechanisms underlying human action? Now as a rule,
lations that have no consciousness or will at all. They are
when people find an intuition so wildly intriguing that they
mechanisms. Extending the notion of causal agency to
regularly stand by it and forsake lots of information that is
these items – to say these things have the ability to cause
technically more correct, they do so because the intuition
themselves to behave – does not fit very well with the phys-
fits. It is somehow part of a bigger scheme of things that
ical causal relations we perceive all around us. Imagine for
they simply cannot discard. So, for example, people once
a moment a spoon, knife, and fork deciding to go for a walk

Wegner: Précis of The illusion of conscious will
to the far end of the dinner table (“we’re off to see the
causality we perceive is something that varies over time and
salad . . .”), and you can see the problem. Things do not
circumstance. Viewing any particular event as mentally or
usually will themselves to move, whereas people seem to do
mechanically caused, therefore, can depend on a host of
this all the time.
factors and can influence dramatically how we go about
This rudimentary observation suggests that people have
making sense of it. And making sense of our own minds as
at hand two radically different systems of explanation, one
mentally causal systems – conscious agents – includes ac-
for minds and one for everything else. Mentalistic explana-
cepting our feelings of conscious will as authentic.
tion works wonders for understanding minds, but it does
not work elsewhere – unless we want to start thinking that
everything from people to rocks to beer cans to the whole
1.3. Real and apparent mental causation
universe actually does what it consciously wants. Mecha-
Any magician will tell you the key to creating a successful
nistic explanation, in turn, is just splendid for understand-
illusion: The illusionist must make a marvelous, apparently
ing those rocks and beer cans, not to mention the move-
magical event into the easiest and most immediate way to
ments of the planets, but meanwhile leaves much to be
explain what are really mundane events. Kelley (1980) de-
wanted in understanding minds.
scribed this in his analysis of the underpinnings of magic in
Each of us is quite comfortable with using these two very
the perception of causality. He observed that stage magic
different ways of thinking about and explaining events – a
involves a perceived causal sequence – the set of events that
physical, mechanical way and a psychological, mental way.
appears to have happened – and a real causal sequence
In the mechanical explanatory system, people apply intu-
the set of events the magician has orchestrated behind the
itive versions of physics to questions of causality, and so they
scenes. The perceived sequence is what makes the trick.
think about causes and effects as events in the world. In the
Laws of nature are broken willy-nilly as people are sawed
mental explanatory system, in turn, people apply implicit
in half, birds and handkerchiefs and rabbits and canes and
psychological theories to questions of causality, focusing on
what-have-you appear from nothing, and also disappear, or
issues of conscious thoughts and the experience of will as
for that matter turn into each other and then back again.
they try to explain actions. In the mechanical way of think-
The real sequence is often more complicated or unex-
ing, all the psychological trappings are unnecessary; a phys-
pected than the illusion, but many of the real events are not
ical system such as a clock, for example, does not have to in-
perceived. The magician needs special pockets, props, and
tend to keep time or to experience doing so. The essence of
equipment, and develops wiles to misdirect audience at-
the mental explanatory system, in contrast, is the occur-
tention from the real sequence. In the end, the audience
rence of the relevant thoughts and feelings about the ac-
observes something that seems to be simple, but in fact it
tion. In this system, the objects and events of physical
may have been achieved with substantial effort, prepara-
causality are not particularly important; a person might ex-
tion, practice, and thought on the magician’s part. The
perience having willed the death of an enemy and become
lovely assistant in a gossamer gown apparently floating ef-
wracked with guilt, for example, even though there was no
fortlessly on her back during the levitation illusion is in fact
mechanism for this to have happened.
being held up by a 600-pound pneumatic lift hidden behind
These two explanatory systems fall into place as children
the specially rigged curtain. It is the very simplicity of the
develop ways of understanding both the physical and psy-
illusory sequence, the shorthand summary that circum-
chological worlds. The first inklings that mind perception
vents all the poor magician’s toil, which makes the trick so
and mechanistic explanation might develop separately in
compelling. The lady levitates. The illusion of conscious will
children came from Jean Piaget, whose perspective has cul-
occurs by much the same technique (Wegner 2003a).
minated in the contemporary literature on the develop-
The real causal sequence underlying human behavior in-
ment of “theory of mind” in animals (Premack & Woodruff
volves a massively complicated set of mechanisms. Every-
1978) and in children (e.g., Wellman 1992), and in work
thing that psychology studies can come into play to predict
that contrasts how children develop an understanding of
and explain even the most innocuous wink of an eye, not to
agency, intention, and will with how they develop an un-
mention some of the more lengthy and elaborate behaviors
derstanding of causality, motion, and the principles of
of which humans are capable. Each of our actions is really
physics (e.g., Carey 1996; Gelman et al. 1995). Neither the
the culmination of an intricate set of physical and mental
perception of the physical world nor the perception of the
processes, including psychological mechanisms that corre-
mental world is a “given” to the new human. Although the
spond to the traditional concept of will – in that they involve
neonate has rudimentary abilities in both areas, both sys-
linkages between our thoughts and our actions. This is the
tems must be developed over time and experience as ways
empirical will. However, we do not see this. Instead, we
of understanding what all is going on.
readily accept the far easier explanation of our behavior that
The idea that mind perception is variable has also been
our Houdini-esque minds present to us: We think we did it.
noted by Dennett (1987; 1996), who captured this obser-
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (1973, p. 21) re-
vation in suggesting that people take an “intentional stance”
marked that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indis-
in perceiving minds that they do not take in perceiving most
tinguishable from magic.” Clarke meant this to refer to the
of the physical world. The degree to which we perceive
fantastic inventions we might discover in the future, or
mindedness in phenomena can change, such that under
might find if we were to travel to advanced civilizations.
some circumstances we see our pet pooch as fully conscious
However, the insight also applies to self-perception. When
and masterfully deciding just where it would be good to
we turn our attention to our own minds, we find that we are
scratch himself, whereas under other circumstances we
suddenly faced with trying to understand an unimaginably
may have difficulty extending the luxury of presumed con-
advanced technology. We cannot possibly know (let alone
scious thought and human agency even to ourselves. It
keep track of) the tremendous number of mechanistic in-
is probably the case, too, that the degree of mechanical
fluences on our behavior, because we have the fortune of

Wegner: Précis of The illusion of conscious will
inhabiting some extraordinarily complicated machines. So
even for actions that are voluntary, for example, during mo-
we develop a shorthand – a belief in the causal efficacy of
tor automatisms such as table-turning, or in hypnosis, or in
our conscious thoughts. We believe in the magic of our own
psychologically disordered states such as dissociation. And
causal agency.
inflated perceptions of the link between thought and ac-
The mind creates this continuous illusion because it re-
tion, in turn, may explain why people experience an illusion
ally doesn’t know what causes its actions. Whatever empir-
of conscious will at all.
ical will there is rumbling along in the engine room – an ac-
The person experiencing will, in this view, is in the same
tual relation between thought and action – might in fact be
position as someone perceiving causation as one billiard
totally inscrutable to the conscious mind. The mind has a
ball strikes another. As we learned from Hume, causation
self-explanation mechanism that produces a roughly con-
in bowling, billiards, and other games is inferred from the
tinuous sense that what is in consciousness is the cause of
constant conjunction of ball movements. It makes sense,
action – the phenomenal will – whereas in fact the mind ac-
then, that will – an experience of one’s own causal influence
tually cannot ever know itself well enough to be able to say
– is inferred from the conjunction of events that lead to ac-
what the causes of its actions are. To quote Spinoza in The
tion. Now, in the case of billiard balls, the players in the
Ethics: “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free;
causal analysis are quite simple: one ball and the other ball.
their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own ac-
One rolls into the other and a causal event occurs. What are
tions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are deter-
the items that seem to click together in our minds to yield
mined. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ig-
the perception of will?
norance of any cause for their actions” (Spinoza 1677/1883,
One view of this was provided by Ziehen (1899), who
Part II, p. 105). In the more contemporary phrasing of Min-
suggested that thinking of self before action yields the sense
sky (1985, p. 306), “none of us enjoys the thought that what
of agency. He proposed that
we do depends on processes we do not know; we prefer to
we finally come to regard the ego-idea as the cause of our ac-
attribute our choices to volition, will, or self-control. . . .
tions because of its very frequent appearance in the series of
Perhaps it would be more honest to say, ‘My decision was
ideas preceding each action. It is almost always represented
determined by internal forces I do not understand’” (empha-
several times among the ideas preceding the final movement.
sis in original).
But the idea of the relation of causality is an empirical element
that always appears when two successive ideas are very closely
associated. (Ziehen 1899, p. 296)
2. Apparent mental causation (Ch. 3)
And indeed, there is evidence that self-attention is associ-
ated with perceived causation of action. People in an ex-
Imagine for a moment that by some magical process, you
periment by Duval and Wicklund (1973) were asked to
could always know when a particular tree branch would
make attributions for hypothetical events (a hypothetical
move in the wind. Just before it moved, you knew it was go-
item: “Imagine you are rushing down a narrow hotel hall-
ing to move, in which direction, and just how it would do it.
way and bump into a housekeeper who is backing out of a
Not only would you know this, but let us assume that the
room”). When asked to decide who was responsible for
same magic would guarantee that you would happen to be
such events, they assigned more causality to themselves if
thinking about the branch just before each move. You
they were making the judgments while they were self-con-
would look over, and then just as you realized it was going
scious. Self-consciousness was manipulated in this study by
to move, it would do it! In this imaginary situation, you
having the participants sit facing a mirror, but other con-
could eventually come to think that you were somehow
trivances – such as showing people their own video image
causing the movement. You would seem to be the source of
or having them hear their tape-recorded voice – also en-
the distant branch’s action, the agent that wills it to move.
hance causal attribution to self (Gibbons 1990).
The feeling that one is moving the tree branch surfaces in
This tendency to perceive oneself as causal when think-
the same way that one would get the sense of performing
ing about oneself is a global version of the more specific
any action at a distance. All it seems to take is the appro-
process that appears to underlie apparent mental causation.
priate foreknowledge of the action. Indeed, with proper
The specific process is the perception of a causal link not
foreknowledge it is difficult not to conclude one has done
only between self and action, but between one’s own
the act, and the feeling of doing may well-up in direct pro-
thought and action. We tend to see ourselves as the authors
portion to the perception that relevant ideas had entered
of an act when we have experienced relevant thoughts
one’s mind before the action. This is beginning to sound like
about the act at an appropriate interval in advance, and so
a theory.
can infer that our own mental processes have set the act in
motion. Actions we perform that are not presaged in our
minds, in turn, would appear not to be caused by our minds.
2.1. A theory of apparent mental causation
The intentions we have to act may or may not be causes, but
The experience of will may be a result of the same mental
this does not matter, as it is only critical that we perceive
processes that people use in the perception of causality
them as causes if we are to experience conscious will.
more generally. The theory of apparent mental causation,
In this analysis, the experience of will is not a direct read-
then, is this: people experience conscious will when they in-
out of some psychological force that causes action from in-
terpret their own thought as the cause of their action (Weg-
side the head. Rather, will is experienced as a result of an
ner & Wheatley 1999). This means that people experience
interpretation of the apparent link between the conscious
conscious will quite independent of any actual causal con-
thoughts that appear in association with action and the na-
nection between their thoughts and actions. Reductions in
ture of the observed action. Will is experienced as the result
the impression that there is a link between thought and ac-
of self-perceived apparent mental causation. Thus, in line
tion may explain why people get a sense of involuntariness
with facets of several existing theories (Brown 1989; Clax-

Wegner: Précis of The illusion of conscious will
ton 1999; Harnad 1982; Hoffmann 1986; Kirsch & Lynn
considering the tree branch example once more. Think, for
1999b; Langer 1975; Libet 1985; Spanos 1986b; Spence
instance, of what could spoil the feeling that you had moved
1996), this theory suggests that the will is a conscious expe-
the branch. If the magic limb moved before you thought of
rience that is derived from interpreting one’s action as
it moving, there would be nothing out of the ordinary and
willed. Also in line with these theories, the present frame-
you would experience no sense of willful action. The
work suggests that the experience of will may only map
thought of movement would be interpretable as a memory
rather weakly, or at times not at all, onto the actual causal
or even a perception of what had happened. If you thought
relationship between the person’s cognition and action. The
of the tree limb moving and then something quite different
new idea introduced here is the possibility that the experi-
moved (say, a nearby chicken dropped to its knees), again
ence of acting develops when the person infers that his or
there would be no experience of will. The thought would be
her own thought was the cause of the action.
irrelevant to what had happened, and you would see no
This theory makes sense as a way of seeing the will be-
causal connection. And if you thought of the tree limb mov-
cause the causal analysis of anything, not only the link from
ing but noticed that something other than your thoughts
thought to action, suffers from a fundamental uncertainty.
had moved it (say, a squirrel), no will would be sensed.
Although we may be fairly well convinced that A causes B,
There would simply be the perception of an external causal
for instance, there is always the possibility that the regular-
event. These observations point to three key sources of the
ity in their association is the result of some third variable,
experience of conscious will: the priority, consistency, and
C, which causes both A and B. Drawing on the work of
exclusivity of the thought about the action (Wegner &
Hume, Jackson (1998) reminds us that “anything can fail to
Wheatley 1999). For the perception of apparent mental
cause anything. No matter how often B follows A, and no
causation, the thought should occur before the action, be
matter how initially obvious the causality of the connection
consistent with the action, and not be accompanied by
seems, the hypothesis that A causes B can be overturned by
other potential causes.
an over-arching theory which shows the two as distinct ef-
Studies of how people perceive external physical events
fects of a common underlying causal process” (p. 203). Al-
(Michotte 1963) indicate that the perception of causality is
though day always precedes night, for example, it is a mis-
highly dependent on these features of the relationship be-
take to say that day causes night, because of course both are
tween the potential cause and potential effect. The candi-
caused in this sequence by the rotation of the earth in the
date for the role of cause must come first or at least at the
presence of the sun.
same time as the effect, it must yield movement that is con-
This uncertainty in causal inference means that no mat-
sistent with its own movement, and it must be unaccompa-
ter how much we are convinced that our thoughts cause our
nied by rival causal events. The absence of any of these con-
actions, it is still true that both thought and action could be
ditions tends to undermine the perception that causation
caused by something else that remains unobserved, leaving
has occurred. Similar principles have been derived for the
us to draw an incorrect causal conclusion. As Searle (1983)
perception of causality for social and everyday events (Ein-
has put it:
horn & Hogarth 1986; Gilbert 1997; Kelley 1972; McClure
It is always possible that something else might actually be caus-
1998), and have also emerged from analyses of how people
ing the bodily movement we think the experience [of acting] is
and other organisms respond to patterns of stimulus con-
causing. It is always possible that I might think I am raising my
tingency when they learn (Alloy & Tabachnik 1984; Young
arm when in fact some other cause is raising it. So there is noth-
1995). The application of these principles to the experience
ing in the experience of acting that actually guarantees that it is
of conscious will can explain phenomena of volition across
causally effective. (p. 130)
a number of areas of psychology.
We can never be sure that our thoughts cause our actions,
as there could always be causes of which we are unaware,
but that have produced both the thoughts and the actions.
2.3. Intentions as previews
This theory of apparent mental causation depends on the
The experience of will is the way our minds portray their
idea that consciousness does not know how conscious men-
operations to us, not their actual operation. Because we
tal processes work. When you multiply 3 times 6 in your
have thoughts of what we will do, we can develop causal
head, for example, the answer just pops into mind without
theories relating those thoughts to our actions on the basis
any indication of how you did that. As Nisbett and Wilson
of priority, consistency, and exclusivity. We come to think of
(1977) have observed, the occurrence of a mental process
these prior thoughts as intentions, and we develop the sense
does not guarantee the individual any special knowledge of
that the intentions have causal force even though they are
the mechanism of this process. Instead, the person seeking
actually just previews of what we may do. Yet, in an impor-
self-insight must employ a priori causal theories to account
tant sense, it must be the case that something in our minds
for his or her own psychological operations. The conscious
plays a causal role in making our actions occur. That some-
will may thus arise from the person’s theory designed to ac-
thing is, in the theory of apparent mental causation, a set of
count for the regular relationship between thought and ac-
unconscious mental processes that cause the action. At the
tion (Wegner 2003b). Conscious will is not a direct percep-
same time, that “something” is very much like the thoughts
tion of that relationship, but rather a feeling based on the
we have prior to the action.
causal inference one makes about the data that do become
One possibility here is that thought and action arise from
available to consciousness: the thought and the observed act.
coupled unconscious mental systems. Brown (1989) has
suggested that consciousness of an action and the perfor-
mance of the action are manifestations of the same “deep
2.2. Principles of causal inference
structure.” In the same sense that the thought of being an-
How do we go about drawing the inference that our thought
gry might reflect the same underlying process as the expe-
has caused our action? Several ideas about this pop up on
rience of facial flushing, the thought and performance of a

Wegner: Précis of The illusion of conscious will
voluntary action might be different expressions of a singu-
3. The mind’s compass (Ch. 9)
lar underlying system. The coupling of thought and action
over time in the adult human is really quite remarkable if
Does the compass steer the ship? In some sense, you could
the thought is not causing the action, so there must be some
say that it does, because the pilot makes reference to the
way in which the two are in fact often connected.
compass in determining whether adjustments should be
The co-occurrence of thought and action may happen
made to the ship’s course. If it looks as though the ship is
because thoughts are normally thrust into mind as previews
headed west into the rocky shore, a calamity can be avoided
of what will be done. The ability to know what one will do,
with a turn north into the harbor. But of course, the com-
and particularly to communicate this to others verbally,
pass does not steer the ship in any physical sense. The nee-
would seem to be an important human asset, something
dle is just gliding around in the compass housing, doing no
that promotes far more effective social interaction than
actual steering at all. It is thus tempting to relegate the lit-
might be the case if we all had no idea of what to expect of
tle magnetic pointer to the class of epiphenomena – things
ourselves or of anyone around us. The thoughts we find
that do not really matter in determining where the ship
coming to our minds in frequent coordination with what we
will go.
do may thus be produced by a special system whose job it
Conscious will is the mind’s compass. As we have seen,
is to provide us with ongoing verbalizable previews of ac-
the experience of consciously willing action occurs as the
tion. This preview function could be fundamentally impor-
result of an interpretive system, a course-sensing mecha-
tant for the facilitation of social interaction. Intentions, in
nism that examines the relations between our thoughts and
this analysis, are to action what turn signals are to the move-
actions and responds with “I willed this” when the two cor-
ments of motor vehicles. They do not cause the movements,
respond appropriately. This experience thus serves as a kind
they preview them.
of compass, alerting the conscious mind when actions oc-
By this logic, real causal mechanisms underlying behav-
cur that are likely to be the result of one’s own agency. The
ior are never present in consciousness. Rather, the engines
experience of will is therefore an indicator, one of those
of causation operate without revealing themselves to us, and
gauges on the control panel to which we refer as we steer.
so may be unconscious mechanisms of mind. The research
Like a compass reading, the feeling of doing tells us some-
suggesting a fundamental role for automatic processes in
thing about the operation of the ship beneath us. But also
everyday behavior (Bargh 1997) can be understood in this
like a compass reading, this information must be under-
light. The real causes of human action are unconscious, so
stood as a conscious experience, a candidate for the
it is not surprising that behavior could often arise – as in au-
dreaded “epiphenomenon” label. Just as compass readings
tomaticity experiments – without the person having con-
do not steer the boat, conscious experiences of will do not
scious insight into its causation. Conscious will itself arises
cause human actions.
from a set of processes that are not the same processes as
Why is it that the conscious experience of will exists at
those that cause the behavior to which the experience of will
all? Why, if this experience is not a sensation of the personal
pertains, however. So, even processes that are not automatic
causation of action, would we even go to the trouble of hav-
– mental processes described as “controlled” (Posner &
ing it? What good is an epiphenomenon? The answer to this
Snyder 1975) or “conscious” (Wegner & Bargh 1998) – have
question becomes apparent when we appreciate conscious
no direct expression in a person’s experience of will. Such
will as a feeling that organizes and informs our under-
“controlled” processes may be less efficient than automatic
standing of our own agency. Conscious will is a signal with
processes and require more cognitive resources, but even if
many of the qualities of an emotion, one that reverberates
they occur along with an experience of control or conscious
through the mind and body to indicate when we sense hav-
will, this experience is not a direct indication of their real
ing authored an action. The idea that conscious will is an
causal influence. The experience of conscious will is just
emotion of authorship moves beyond the standard way in
more likely to accompany inefficient processes than effi-
which people have been thinking about free will and deter-
cient ones because there is more time available prior to ac-
minism and presses toward a useful new perspective.
tion for inefficient thoughts to become conscious, thus to
prompt the formation of causal inferences linking thought
and action. This might explain why controlled/conscious
3.1. Free will and determinism
processes are often linked with feelings of will, whereas au-
A book called The Illusion of Conscious Will certainly gives
tomatic processes are not. Controlled and conscious
the impression of being a poke in the eye for readers who
processes are simply those that lumber along so inefficiently
believe in free will. It is perfectly reasonable to look at the
that there is plenty of time for previews of their associated
title and think the book is all about determinism and that it
actions to come to mind and allow us to infer the operation
will give the idea of free will no fair hearing at all. And, of
of conscious will (Wegner 2005).
course, the line of thought here does take a decidedly de-
The unique human convenience of conscious thoughts
terministic approach. For all this, though, our discussion
that preview our actions gives us the privilege of feeling we
has actually been about the experience of free will, exam-
willfully cause what we do. In fact, however, unconscious
ining at length when people feel it and when they do not.
and inscrutable mechanisms create both conscious thought
The special idea we have been exploring is to explain the ex-
about action and the action as well, and also produce the
perience of free will in terms of deterministic or mechanis-
sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as
tic processes.
cause of action. So, although our thoughts may have deep,
On the surface, this idea seems not to offer much in the
important, and unconscious causal connections to our ac-
way of a solution for the classic question of free will and de-
tions, the experience of conscious will arises from a process
terminism. How does explaining the feeling of will in terms
that interprets these connections, not from the connections
of deterministic principles help us to decide which one is
true? Most philosophers and people on the street see this

Wegner: Précis of The illusion of conscious will
as a fight between two big ideas, and they call for a decision
lustrates how hollow and unsatisfying free will of this kind
on which one is the winner. As it turns out, however, a de-
might be. In essence, any such system makes sense only if
cision is not really called for at all. The usual choice we are
it inserts some fickle indeterminacy into the person’s ac-
offered between these extremes is not really a choice, but
tions. Dennett points out that it is not particularly interest-
rather a false dichotomy. It is like asking: Shall we dance, or
ing or fun to have a coin flipper added to the works some-
shall we move about the room in time with the music? The
where between “sensory input” and “behavior output.”
dichotomy melts when we explain one pole of the dimen-
Who would want free will if it is nothing more than an in-
sion in terms of the other. Still, this does not sit well with
ternal coin flip? This is not what we mean when we talk
anyone who is married to the standard version of the prob-
about our own conscious will. Trying to understand free will
lem, so we need to examine just how this usual choice leads
as though it were a kind of psychological causal process
us astray.
leads only to a mechanism that has no relationship at all to
the experience of free will that we each have every day.
3.1.1. The usual choice. Most of us think we understand
People appreciate free will as a kind of personal power,
the basic issue of free will and determinism. The question
an ability to do what they want to do. Voltaire (1694–1778)
seems to be whether all our actions are determined by
expressed this intuition in saying, “Liberty then is only and
mechanisms beyond our control, or whether at least some
can be only the power to do what one will” (1752/1924,
of them are determined by our free choice. Described this
p. 145). He argued that this feeling of freedom is not served
way, many people are happy to side with one possibility or