The Will in Modern Psychology

In modern psychology, the theory of the Will is pragmatic. The Will is not regarded as a separate psychic faculty; it is considered to be a quality or aspect of behaviour. The Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia summarised the act of will in four points:

  1. the fixing of attention on relatively distant goals and relatively abstract standards and principles of conduct;
  2. the weighing of alternative courses of action and the taking of deliberate action that seems best calculated to serve specific goals and principles;
  3. the inhibition of impulses and habits that might distract attention from, or otherwise conflict with, a goal or principle;
  4. perseverance against obstacles and frustrations in pursuit of goals or adherence to principles.

Modern psychologists suggest that the weakness of will may be due to one or more of the following:

  • A lack of suitable goals
  • A lack of suitable ideals and standards
  • Indecision brought about by one’s attention shifting from one opinion or course of action to another
  • The inability to choose between alternative courses of action
  • The inability to stay with a decision one it is made
  • The inability to break habits
  • The inability to resist desires, impulses, and urges

Modern psychologists often use the word volition in preference to “Will”. Volition is the cognitive process by which an individual decides on and commits to a particular course of action. It is defined as purposive striving, and is one of the primary human psychological functions (the others being affection [affect or feeling], motivation [goals and expectations] and cognition [thinking]). Volitional processes can be applied consciously, and they can be automatized as habits over time. Most modern conceptions of volition address it as a process of action control that becomes automatized (see e.g., Heckhausen and Kuhl; Gollwitzer; Boekaerts and Corno).

Willpower is the colloquial, and volition the scientific, term for the same state of the will; viz., an “elective preference”. When we have “made up our minds” (as we say) to a thing, i.e., have a settled state of choice respecting it, that state is called an immanent volition; when we put forth any particular act of choice, that act is called an emanant, or executive, or imperative, volition. When an immanent, or settled state of, choice, is one which controls or governs a series of actions, we call that state a predominant volition; while we give the name of subordinate volitions to those particular acts of choice which carry into effect the object sought for by the governing or “predominant volition”.

Willpower is a concept that assumes we are under rational control, and the reduction of the same results in a lack of willpower. The fact is that we turn our rationality to serve our impulses or wishes, and sometimes have great willpower in pursuing them. Thus an alcoholic can be very cunning in achieving his determination to drink, and may display great willpower in achieving this goal.

At other moments, he may rationally know that this behavior destroys his life, and costs him all that is dear to him, and may resolve for the moment to forgo it. That is when the observer deduces that willpower is a key to success, and with sufficient will he would remain with that promise. However, at another moment another urge may become important, and he devotes his will and his rationality to satisfying that urge.

The observer’s error is to assume that the human is a rational creature, and that will should serve that rationality. In fact, we are only partly rational, and often our rationality and determination serve various motivations that occur for causes other than reason.

Within Gary Kielhofner’s “Model of Human Occupation” volition is one of the three sub-systems that act on human behavior. Within this model volition considers a person’s values, interests and beliefs about self-efficacy and personal capacity.

Experimental Psychology

Social psychologist Daniel Wegner is known for his work on mental control and conscious will. His book, 0262232227, tackles the long-debated notion of free will through the scope of experimental psychology.

Article development proposal

The following is based on work carried out by the co-creative group on the Will Project during the International Congress of Psychosynthesis in Canada from 11 to 15 September 1998. Initially this is provided to give some form of structure to pages. Please edit freely.

  1. Explore ways in which the popular literature (pop-psychology, self-help literature) is addressing the will (perhaps in different languages but corresponding to the will)
  2. Research and write about references to the will in main line, humanistic, and existential psychologies (including Rollo May, Otto Rank, Silvano Arieti, and William James)
  3. Develop a college course: Comparative Psychology of the Will Today
  4. Research the impact of culture on the will and the will’s impact on culture
  5. Host an “ecumenical” round table on the will (including representatives of various schools of psychology)


  • “Will (philosophy and psychology),” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2009 (no longer online)
  • Volition_(psychology)

Last modified: 31 December 2011

1 Comment

  1. Know the difference between will and volition.
    See the Will Project

    The Will in TCM Five Elements is a separate level of consciousness from the rational/intention mind (called Yi) and the intuitive/intentionality mind (called Shen) as well as the purposeful/intent mind (called Hun) and the engaging/intending mind (called Po). It can align itself with any element or act independently spontaneously making an executive act without decision or choice and without knowledge, reason or consequences of the act.

    Volition is the faculty or power of the will. A decision, choice, resolve or action made by the will. 1. The act of willing; “She left of her own free will or I left on my own volition.” 2. The choice or decision made by the will; ” I was lost in thought and arrived at my destination on sheer volition.” 3. The power of willing; “Without conscious decision, choice or volition she backed away and jumped off the bridge.”

    Scientifically Volition is a cognitive process by which an individual decides on and commits to a particular course of action…


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