Wegner’s Illusion: Intention, Action, Will

Chapter 5, ‘Protecting the Illusion’, of Daniel Wegner’s ‘The Illusion of Conscious Will’ categorizes the relationship between intention, action and will very precisely. It’s worth distilling the 40-odd pages down to the few key points.


Conscious thoughts are those in mind now whereas accessible ones are those that have the potential to be in mind soon. Thoughts can therefore be put into three categories:

  • Conscious but not accessible: in mind but unable to progress because distracted by other (accessible) thoughts.
  • Both conscious and accessible: able to progress consciously to action in a rational manner.
  • Accessible but not conscious: unconscious thoughts; they may affect behaviour but not consciously so.

Thought and Action

Relating thought with action, there are 4 combinations:

  • Unconscious thoughts that lead to to unperceived action. (Example: After a psychologist experiment which primes the subject with words associated with old-age, people walk more slowly away afterwards.)
  • Unconscious thoughts that lead to the perception of action.
  • Conscious thoughts that lead to unperceived action.
  • Conscious thoughts that lead to the perception of action: only this one is accompanied by the experience of will.

Intention Memory

There are three types of ‘Intentional memory’:

  • ‘Prospective’ [Future]: what is intended to be done, prior to action.
  • ‘Synchronous’ [Present]: at the time of action. This is required for the experience of will.
  • ‘Retrospective’ [Past]: memory of why the act was done.

Memory is far from perfect and can change over time. The retrospective memory of an action may be different from the prospective memory of the same action. We tend to remember prospective [future] intentions far better than the retrospective [past] ones as it is more important for an agent to remember prospective intentions – what is done is done and nothing can be changed about it. This is called the ‘Zeigarnik effect’. The consequences of losing memory is different for each type:

  • If we lose future intent, we won’t do the action.
  • If we lose present intent, we won’t feel that the action was willed (see later).
  • If we lose past intent, we will invent some new memory to explain it (see later).

(In young children, memory of the present dominates. There is no concept that intention must precede action.)


An agent perceives the environment and acts upon it.

An ‘Ideal Agent’ has an intention that is then realised without obstruction in the physical world. Such an agent is God-like; we aspire to be ‘Ideal Agents’. Such a clear control of matter by mind is very Cartesian.

We perceive minds as agents.

Intention, Action and Will: Completing the Puzzle

[For Dennett,  the ‘Intentional Stance’ is a particular way of viewing the world – sometimes the right way, since it is the most useful to see things in this way. For Wegner, we happen to be compelled to see things in an intentional way (and the basic lowest-level ‘physical stance’ is the correct view).]

We look for intentionality, filling-in where we find it does not exist.

Wegner states that out of intention, will and action, if we find 2 of them, we will ‘complete the puzzle’ to account for the third:

  • Intention with Action implies Will: The presence of synchronous intention memory with the experience of action creates a sense of conscious will. The memory of an intention to do something and the feeling that this was willed leads us to create possibly bizarre explanations for our actions
  • Intention with Will implies Action: [stated but no example given.]
  • Action with Will implies Intention: The memory of action and the feeling that this was willed leads us to create possibly bizarre explanations for our intentions of behaving in this way.


  • Some schizophrenics are deeply distractable. This may be viewed as an impairment of synchronous memory that leaves them with only conscious-but-not-accessible memory. The experience of Action without Will leads them to attribute will to others: ‘alien control’.
  • Action without Will – we attribute intention to others: automatism examples such as Ouija boards and dowsing). Unconscious thought may actually be causing action but because there is no experience of will it is externalized – to the Will of others i.e. spirits.
  • A more disturbing example associated with the above: ‘Facilitated Communication’: psychologists using their bodies to help autistic people communicate. Unfortunately, this is just like the ouija board scenario – the facilitator attributes will to the autistic patient rather than their own unconscious actions.
  • Post-hypnotic suggestion: Someone is hypnotized to perform an action on regaining consciousness. On waking, they experience the performance of the action. When challenged why they did such an action, they will create a retrospective explanation which can be remarkably outlandish (in order to complete the puzzle).
  • Cognitive Dissonance:  action is public whereas thought is private. If there is a mismatch, we must restore order which is achieved by revising our (intentional) thoughts!
  • An egotist may not be as manipulative as we think. They promote themselves when their actions work out well; they conveniently revise history when their actions do not. We and they suffer from the assumption that they are an ideal agent.
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2 Responses to Wegner’s Illusion: Intention, Action, Will

  1. Pingback: Wegner’s Illusion: An Overview | Headbirths

  2. Pingback: Ethics 101 | Headbirths

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