Theses Doctoral

Motivator and Moralizer: How Agency Shapes Choice and Judgment

Bucknoff, Zachary Jason

The subjective experience of agency is a dimension of inner life that has consequences for motivation and moral judgment. Cognitive psychologists have studied the processes that underlie conscious will and metacognition of agency while social psychologists have examined how comparable constructs, such as autonomy and self-efficacy, relate to human needs and wellbeing. However, the consequences of the transient feeling state that accompanies agential experiences have received less attention. This dissertation examines the consequences of agency for motivation and moral judgment across seven experiments that manipulated feelings of agency via motor control games, episodic simulations, and autobiographical recollections. In its entirety, this work suggests that people seek experiences that confer high feelings of agency while both high- and low-agency experiences influence how we judge others’ actions. Chapter I reviews prior literature on agency and related constructs and introduces the conceptual and theoretical framework.

Chapters II – IV discuss how feelings of agency manipulated via proximal, action-oriented cues and distal, outcome-oriented cues affect task preference. Findings suggest that people generally like experiences of high agency, and that motivation is more sensitive to proximal rather than distal disturbances. People tend to make choices to increase their likelihood of experiencing high agency via retention of action control, even at the expense of desired outcomes.

Chapters V – VIII explore the relationship between agential experiences and moral judgments of others’ behavior. Results reveal a novel effect such that both high- and low-agency experiences lead to more intense judgments. In addition, people who are most sensitive to factors that influence their sense of agency also tend to deliver the harshest judgments. The findings suggest a two-process model of attributive projection and compensatory control mechanisms. They also imply a self-amplifying effect of extreme agency states such that both experiences of high and low agency may enhance activation of self-related schema, which in turn influence moral judgments.

Chapters IX and X summarize the experiments and discuss the broader significance of this work for research on motivation and moral psychology.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Metcalfe, Janet A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 16, 2020