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This week we will deepen our understanding of the dual-process theory of instrumental action, examine some evidence supporting it (which will involve becoming familiar with some experimental paradigms), and consider how this theory might complicate attempts to solve The Problem of Action.


Each lecture is linked to an assignment on yyrama. This week’s is about Assignment 2, which is also your first piece of assessed work. In this assignment, you are asked how, if at all, discoveries in the behavioural sciences should inform attempts to solve The Problem of Action.

This lecture depends on you having studied some sections from a previous lecture:

For the minimum course of study, consider only these sections:

There is quite a lot of material to wrap your head around this week. I’ve arranged things so that you will be able to do the assignment even if you skip everything next week, allowing you to take more time to study this week’s notes and recordings if you wish.

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Your question will normally be answered in the question session associated with this lecture.

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dual-process theory of instrumental action : instrumental action ‘is controlled by two dissociable processes: a goal-directed and an habitual process’ (Dickinson, 2016, p. 177).
instrumental action : An action is instrumental if it happens in order to bring about an outcome, as when you press a lever in order to obtain food. (In this case, obtaining food is the outcome, lever pressing is the action, and the action is instrumental because it occurs in order to bring it about that you obtain food.)
You may variations on this definition of instrumental in the literature. Dickinson (2016, p. 177) characterises instrumental actions differently: in place of the teleological ‘in order to bring about an outcome’, he stipulates that an instrumental action is one that is ‘controlled by the contingency between’ the action and an outcome. And de Wit & Dickinson (2009, p. 464) stipulate that ‘instrumental actions are learned’.
The Problem of Action : What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you? (According to Frankfurt (1978, p. 157), ‘The problem of action is to explicate the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him.’)


de Wit, S., & Dickinson, A. (2009). Associative theories of goal-directed behaviour: A case for animalhuman translational models. Psychological Research PRPF, 73(4), 463–476.
Dickinson, A. (2016). Instrumental conditioning revisited: Updating dual-process theory. In J. B. Trobalon & V. D. Chamizo (Eds.), Associative learning and cognition (Vol. 51, pp. 177–195). Edicions Universitat Barcelona.
Frankfurt, H. G. (1978). The problem of action. American Philosophical Quarterly, 15(2), 157–162.