Link Search Menu Expand Document


In this lecture we have begun to think about instrumental action from the point of view of theories of animal learning, distinguishing habitual from goal-directed processes. And we have considered action from the point of view of philosophy of action, focussing on The Problem of Action and the notion of intention.

This recording is also available on stream (no ads; search enabled). Or you can view just the slides (no audio or video). You should not watch the recording this year, it’s all happening live (advice).

If the video isn’t working you could also watch it on youtube. Or you can view just the slides (no audio or video). You should not watch the recording this year, it’s all happening live (advice).

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

The recording is available on stream and youtube.


The challenge for the whole course is to discover why people act, individually and jointly.

In this lecture we encountered two questions about action:

Question 1: What is the relation between an instrumental action and the outcome or outcomes to which it is directed? (see Goal-Directed and Habitual Processes)

Question 2: What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you? (The Problem of Action, see Philosophical Theories of Action)

Philosophers standardly answer both questions by invoking intention. This supports the Simple Picture of why people act. But is it the whole story?

We can coherently answer the first question by appeal to habitual processes without invoking intention at all. This suggests that the standard philosophical answer is not the whole story.

Our next step is to examine whether the existence of habitual processes creates a problem for philosophical answers to the second question.

Ask a Question

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

More information about asking questions.


directed : For an action to be directed to an outcome is for the action to happen in order to bring that outcome about.
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). (Interesting complication which you can safely ignore: there is probably much more to say about under what conditions the stimulus–action connection is strengthened; e.g. Thrailkill, Trask, Vidal, Alcalá, & Bouton, 2018.)
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 encounter variations on this definition of instrumental in the literature. For instance, 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’.
outcome : An outcome of an action is a possible or actual state of affairs.
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. (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.
Thrailkill, E. A., Trask, S., Vidal, P., Alcalá, J. A., & Bouton, M. E. (2018). Stimulus control of actions and habits: A role for reinforcer predictability and attention in the development of habitual behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 44, 370–384.