Link Search Menu Expand Document

The Problem of Action meets Habitual Processes

Does the fact that habitual processes and not only goal-directed processes influence instrumental actions pose a challenge to the Standard Solution to The Problem of Action? Might this fact even assist us, eventually, in developing a challenge to the Causal Theory of Action?

This recording is also available on stream (no ads; search enabled). Or you can view just the slides (no audio or video).

If the video isn’t working you could also watch it on youtube. Or you can view just the slides (no audio or video).

If the slides are not working, or you prefer them full screen, please try this link.

The recording is available on stream and youtube.


Why Focus on The Problem of Action?

What do we want from a philosophical story about action?

We want a framework that supports theorising about action in the behavioural and social sciences. Minimally, the framework should allow us to make all the important distinctions; enable us to formulate questions about how and why agents act; and support deriving predictions from hypotheses about the answers to these questions. That, at least, is the framework we (well, mainly you[1]) are attempting to construct in thinking through philosophical issues in behavioural sciences.

It seems reasonable to expect that any such framework must solve The Problem of Action. After all, the distinction between an action and event that merely happens to you looks fundamental. So while solving this problem is not sufficient for our aims, doing so does seem to be necessary.

Objection to the Standard Solution

The Problem of Action is to say what distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you (see Philosophical Theories of Action).

According to the Standard Solution to this Problem, actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention (see Philosophical Theories of Action).

What counts as ‘appropriate’ here? This turns out to be a hard problem to answer. Davidson (1980, p. 79) noticed, in effect, that intentions can cause events which would not thereby count as intentional actions. We therefore cannot say simply that actions are events caused by intentions; they have to be caused ‘in the appropriate way’, whatever that is.

For our purposes (considering an objection to the Standard Solution), we need not fully specify what counts as ‘appropriate’.[2] It is enough to notice that, for the causal relation to be appropriate, minimally:

  • the action should not manifestly run counter to the agent’s intentions; and

  • neither should whether the action occurs be independent of what the agent intends.

Objection to the Standard Solution: some actions are dominated by habitual processes and may therefore manifestly run counter to your intentions. For example, it is possible to continue seeking out a sweet chocolate drink instead of peppermint tea despite being sated on the drink and therefore would actually prefer the peppermint tea (compare Schwabe & Wolf, 2010 discussed in Goal-Directed and Habitual: Some Evidence). Since it is irrational to intend to knowingly seek out a less preferred alternative at no greater cost than seeking a more preferred alterantive, it is possible for this action to occur counter to your intentions. Therefore not all actions do stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention.

Other cases illustrating how habitual processes are insensitive to intentions and can therefore run counter to them about. (Wood & Rünger, 2016, p. 293) cite two:

  1. ‘when students who frequently went to the sports stadium on campus were incidentally exposed to an image of the stadium, they raised their voices as they would habitually in that context, despite no change in their motivation to speak loudly (Neal, Wood, Labrecque, & Lally, 2012)

  2. ‘in a study conducted in a local cinema, participants with stronger habits to eat popcorn at the movies consumed more than those with weak habits, even when they disliked the popcorn because it was stale and unpalatable (Neal, Wood, Wu, & Kurlander, 2011).’

First Response to the Objection

In response to the above Objection, consider the possibility of insisting that in every case the agent really does have a guiding intention after all. Could there be a good reply based on this response?

Note that insisting on something contrary to what has been argued is not properly a reply to the Objection but merely a response. Your challenge is to evaluate whether or not this line of response might be turned into a viable reply.

Second Response to the Objection

In response to the above Objection, consider restricting both The Problem of Action and the Standard Solution to intentional action.

Could there be a good reply based on this response? It may avoid the Objection, given the further assumption that actions dominated by habitual processes are not intentional actions. But this appears to be a hollow victory. After all, what was supposed to be a bold revelation about action would, if we accepted the reply, turn out to be merely the claim that intentional actions are things that stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention.

Further, unless we think that all actions are intentional actions (which would be hard to square with the above Objection), the original Problem of Action is still a good question. We still need to know what distinguishes actions of all kinds from things that merely happen to you.

Are there better replies to the Objection? Or can this response be developed in a much better way? If neither, should we revise or reject the Standard Solution?

We might minimally revise the Standard Solution by saying that actions are those events which stand in an appropriate relation to either a goal-directed process or a habitual process. This quite minor revision allows us to retain the Causal Theory of Action.

But can stimlus-action links and habitual processes really be relevant to solving The Problem of Action?

Further Replies to the Objection

An Anscombian Perspective

Kalis & Ometto (2021, p. 640ff) provide a critical overview of several philosophers’ attempts to reply to a variant of the above Objection. These authors propose their own response, which does involve rejecting the Standard Solution in favour of an Anscombe-inspired alternative.[3]

If exploring further work by philosophers, be careful to check whether their understanding of habitual process matches yours. You can tell that this will be tricky from the fact that Kalis & Ometto (2021, p. 640ff) write about ‘habitual actions’, whereas, strictly speaking, no such things exist on the dual-process theory of instrumental action (as explained in The Minor Puzzle about Habitual Action).

Basic Actions?

A different line of response might be to appeal to so-called basic or primitive actions, that is, actions which you can perform without performing any other action (Davidson, 1971).[4] In cases like popcorn eating where, supposedly, actions can run counter to any intention, consider that there is a distinction between the larger action (eating popcorn) and component actions like reaching for some popcorn, grasping it, transporting it to the mouth and eating it. Regardless of whether the larger action runs counter to any intention, might these component actions nevertheless be appropriately related to the agents intentions? If so, could we revise the Standard Solution to avoid the Objection above?

Discoveries about motor representation (see Motor Representation) complicate this line of response in two ways—they make it harder to characterise actions like reaching and grasping as basic actions, and they indicate that may be no need to postulate intentions concerning these actions specifically (as they are already well taken care of by motor representations).

Bonus Dangling Question: Alternative to the Causal Theory?

According to the Causal Theory of Action, an event is action ‘just in case it has a certain sort of psychological cause’ (Bach, 1978, p. 361). If we retain the Causal Theory and if we also accept that some actions are dominated by habitual processes and may therefore run counter to your intentions, then we will have to invoke not only beliefs, desires and intentions but also stimlus-action links in distinguishing actions from events that merely happen to you.

This may motivate considering alternatives to the Causal Theory.

Consider two questions:

  1. What distinguishes instrumental actions from things which merely happen to an agent (and from noninstrumental actions, if there are any)? [This is ‘The Problem of Action’]

  2. Which states cause instrumental actions?

Fully understanding action requires answering both questions (and more).[5] But the Causal Theory of Action insists on answering the first question in a way that also involves answering, partially or wholly, the second. The idea is not simply that better understanding answers to the second question might guide us in working out the answer to the first question. On the Causal Theory of Action, any answer to the first question must already involve answering the second. There is no possibility, not even in principle, of answering the first question correctly but then discovering that everything we thought we knew about the second question is wrong.

Let us say that any answer to the first question which does not involve making commitments concerning which states, or structures of states, cause instrumental actions is _mechanistically neutral_ (as opposed to a mechanistically committed answer, which the Causal Theory of Action requires).[6]

If we reject the Causal Theory of Action, we will need a mechanistically neutral solution to The Problem of Action. What might that be?

Ask a Question

Your question will normally be answered in the question session of the next lecture.

More information about asking questions.


Causal Theory of Action : According to this view, an event is action ‘just in case it has a certain sort of psychological cause’ (Bach, 1978, p. 361).
devaluation : To devaluate some food (or video clip, or any other thing) is to reduce its value, for example by allowing the agent to satiete themselves on it or by causing them to associate it with an uncomfortable event such as an electric shock or mild illness.
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).
extinction : In some experiments, there is a phase (usually following instrumental training and an intervention such as devaluation) during which the subject encounters the training scenario exactly as it was (same stimuli, same action possibilities) but the actions produce no revant outcomes. In this extinction phase, there is no reward (nor punishment). (It is called ‘extinction’ because in many cases not rewarding (or punishing) the actions will eventually extinguish the stimulus--action links.)
goal-directed process : A process which involves ‘a representation of the causal relationship between the action and outcome and a representation of the current incentive value, or utility, of the outcome’ and which influences an action ‘in a way that rationalizes the action as instrumental for attaining the goal’ (Dickinson, 2016, p. 177).
habitual process : A process underpinning some instrumental actions which obeys Thorndyke’s Law of Effect: ‘The presenta­tion of an effective [=rewarding] outcome following an action [...] rein­forces a connection between the stimuli present when the action is per­formed and the action itself so that subsequent presentations of these stimuli elicit the [...] action as a response’ (Dickinson, 1994, p. 48).
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’.
mechanistically neutral : A characterisation of instrumental action (or of joint action) is _mechanistically neutral_ just if it does not involve making commitments concerning which states, or structures of states, cause instrumental actions (or cause joint actions).
motor representation : The kind of representation characteristically involved in preparing, performing and monitoring sequences of small-scale actions such as grasping, transporting and placing an object. They represent actual, possible, imagined or observed actions and their effects.
Standard Solution : (to The Problem of Action). Actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention.
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.’)


Bach, K. (1978). A representational theory of action. Philosophical Studies, 34(4), 361–379.
Davidson, D. (1971). Agency. In R. Binkley, R. Bronaugh, & A. Marras (Eds.), Agent, action, and reason, (pp. 3–25). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Davidson, D. (1980). Essays on actions and events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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. (1994). Instrumental conditioning. In N. Mackintosh (Ed.), Animal learning and cognition. London: Academic Press.
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.
Ginet, C. (1990). On Action. Cambridge University Press.
Kalis, A., & Ometto, D. (2021). An Anscombean Perspective on Habitual Action. Topoi, 40(3), 637–648.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Labrecque, J. S., & Lally, P. (2012). How do habits guide behavior? Perceived and actual triggers of habits in daily life. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(2), 492–498.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Wu, M., & Kurlander, D. (2011). The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1428–1437.
Schlosser, M. (2019). Agency. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
Schwabe, L., & Wolf, O. T. (2010). Socially evaluated cold pressor stress after instrumental learning favors habits over goal-directed action. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(7), 977–986.
Shepherd, J. (2021). The Shape of Agency: Control, Action, Skill, Knowledge. The Shape of Agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wood, W., & Rünger, D. (2016). Psychology of habit. Annual Review of Psychology, 67, 289–314.


  1. Your lecturer enjoys the luxury, in teaching, of being able to point to multiple conflicting sources, leaving the hard work of arriving at the truth and discerning the limits of what we know to you. Their role is to introduce and motivate questions, yours to answer them. ↩︎

  2. Shepherd (2021, p. chapter 3) offers a recent attempt. ↩︎

  3. Note that these authors’ are presenting a slightly different objection from the one above, as you can see from their diagnosis of how the objection arises (Kalis & Ometto, 2021, p. 642). Although they do mention ↩︎

  4. As Schlosser (2019, p. footnote 17) notes, there is no agreement about how to characterise basic actions. This notion should be invoked with caution and avoided where possible. ↩︎

  5. Of course there are philosophers who might deny that the second question bears on any philosophical questions about action (Ginet (1990), for example). ↩︎

  6. Note that the possibility of characterising A in terms which do not mention B does not in general imply that it is possible for there to be As without corresponding Bs. Proponents of a mechanistically neutral approach may therefore accept that instrumental actions are caused by intentions and could not be caused in some other way . ↩︎