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The Role of Deliberative Processing in Behavioural Regulation

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It is interesting to note that most of models for behaviour have a focus on the automatic, impulsive part of behavioural regulation. However, deliberation has not disappeared from the scene and makes up a part of some models.

The Mode-Model by Fazio consists of two different classes of processes that can regulate behaviour. The spontaneous process begins with the presence of an environmental trigger. Such perceptions are affected by the knowledge structures, affect, value and expectations that are associated with the current situation. The model expects behaviour to be largely determined by this route. The deliberative processing is marked by cognitive work. It needs conscious information to be present and analyses it in order to identify costs and benefits. However, a deliberative process might still involve some components that are influenced by automatic processes, thus mixed processes are possible.

In his paper on implementation intention Gollwitzer (1993) focuses on the automatic route to behaviour. He also believes that with perceptual information certain situated knowledge is activated. In his model automatic goal pursuit arises from frequent pairing of goal and stimulus. He proposes however a deliberative way to mimic this process. If an implementation intention is consciously formed and practised then this goal information will become active, when the “if” perception occurs. The behavioural schema of the “then”-part is then automatically activated.

Pochaska’s research has led to some interesting findings concerning the change of behavioural patterns. He proposes a model of five steps that are connected in a circle. The first step is precontemplation, followed by contemplation and preparation. The behaviour change is then enacted and, crucially for the success, maintained. Although automatic processes might also be involved, the general outline is focussed on deliberative thought. Most of the suggestion for supporting people who are changing involve stimulating deliberative thought processes in the client.

Last but not least, the model of the reflective impulsive system as supposed by Strack and Deutsch: The main body of the model is made up of the associative store. Episodic and semantic links spread activation between the perception /imagination and behavioural schemata. Only the impulsive system is able to generate behaviour by an “impulsive action”. Yet the reflective system is also important, as it can influence the spreading of activation of every step of the deliberation process. Those steps involve: Propositional categorization, noetic decision and behavioural decision. This model is very comprehensive and provides a unifying framework for many different theories.

The Mode-Model, Gollwitzer’s idea on implementation intention and the reflective impulsive system share many features, yet they focus on slightly different topics with regard to behaviour control. Whereas Gollwitzer is interested in how behaviour can be changed, but on a more mechanical level than Pockaska, the other two models give an explanation of how and why behaviour arises from a more general point of view.

I believe that the strongest empirical evidence for the effect of deliberation on behaviour comes from intention implementation, because in order to change unwanted behaviour one does need to compete with the automatic behaviour for the most activation in order to activate the appropriate behavioural schema. In order to do so the automatic associations must be changed. This was confirmed by Gollwitzer (2002) and his colleagues. They showed that participants holding implementation intentions reacted to words describing the anticipated critical situation much stronger than participants who had only formed goal intentions.

I believe that all theories concerned with deliberation will need to look closely at automatic, impulsive behaviour. As with the implementation intention I believe that the influence of deliberation on behaviour is mostly indirect, as supposed by Strack and Deutsch. Furthermore I believe that research in embodied embedded cognition will contribute to the topic of behavioural regulation, because it can generate specific hypotheses on how the activation in the impulsive system spreads. For example, Wong & Yon (1991) have proposed that associations are less semantically but more perceptually oriented. For example, asking participants to describe a water melon (many report green and stripes) yields different results than asking them to describe half a water melon (participants report much more red). I believe that if it is clearer how the associations are interconnected, it will also be much easier to see how deliberate processes can have influence on behaviour and how reflective and impulsive processes interact with each other.

Free Will and Consciousness

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The topic of free will has been a central issue since the beginning of philosophy: How do rational agents exercise control over one’s actions and decisions.

In “the precise of the illusion of conscious will” (2004), Daniel M. Wegner explores the idea of apparent mental causation. He argues that if a thought arises just before an action takes place, if it is consistent with the action and the exclusive salient cause of the action, we will regard ourselves as the agent of the behaviour.

Libet (1985) showed in his experiment that conscious perception of reality lives about half a second in the past. He concluded that we could not have free will, since our brain already comes into action, before we have consciously engaged in the idea. He offered however, as some kind of last hope, the veto right of the free will. The same effect has also been found by Cunningham et al. (2001). In a computer game, similar to space invaders, participants had to use a computer mouse with a half second delay. When the delay was removed, the participants reported that the hand moved before they had consciously made that decision.

So does free will exist? If we live in the past and we falsely attribute behaviour to ourselves that we had no influence of, how can we propose that we are consciously in control of our behaviour? Is consciousness but an epiphenomenon?

I believe that these findings have to be interpreted very carefully. Although they offer intriguing hypothesis about how and why we act, we should not, in a hurry, remove consciousness from the picture. When lifting your finger, as done Libet’s experiment, the motor program running will be automatic, although the decision to do so might be conscious. But do participants really make their conscious choice a few milliseconds before the execution? I believe that they will execute the task in a mental simulation as soon as they are told what will be expected of them in this experiment. So the “causal decision” to execute the movement might be the activation of the action potential itself, not the conscious report of the decision to life the finger. The original decision to lift the finger at that time might have occurred much earlier. The ultimate decision to do so, by putting the body in such a state as to engage in this behaviour, was conscious.

I can only speculate how this mechanism actually could word, but in the computer world there is something called “cronjob”. This is an automatic program that is set to run at a specific time. Its much like always taking your medication at a specific time in order not to forget it. After a while you will remember it automatically at the given time. Thus consciousness might be able to implement such timed processes. If you think about consciousness pulling the string in the background, the half-second delay of the perception does not pose a huge problem. It does however, if free will necessarily requires consciousness to be online “in realtime” to make decisions.

In the computer experiment of Cunningham et al., involving the mouse delay, it is important to plan ahead because the participants know that they will have to cope with a delay. They ordered an action before it actually took place. They did so consciously and also successfully. We might just have adjusted to that specific delay between action and perception very well, because it feels natural to us. As long as consciousness can rely on automatic processes to carry out the proper motor behaviour, it does not need control in real time. Nørretranders (1999) also believes that speed is an important issue; he believes that “ Things that need to happen quickly happen subconsciously.”. Because adjustments of motor behaviour do not require conscious thought, they are not subject to the 500 ms delay.

Backdating perceptions might rather have other practical implications, for example to enhance structuring the environment in meaningful ways. The results of Wegner’s study can be interpreted in this way. Although Wegner’s studies show that our attribution of agency to action can be fooled, It might rather be the case that perception is fooled. I am not convinced that this requires the necessary conclusion that we do not have free will. As seen with the mouse delay, the “natural perception delay” can be altered. In the patient with clinical condition this alteration might include all senses and be persistent. I therefore conclude that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon, but an integral part in the selection of behaviour.


Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary
action. Behavioral and brain sciences 8:44, 529-566.

Nørretranders, T. (1999). The User Illusion, Penguin.

Wegner, M. (2004). Précis of The illusion of conscious will. Behavioral and brain sciences, 27, 1-11.

Written by Martin Metzmacher

November 7, 2007 at 1:14 am