Intentional Action

Intentionality and its observed manifestation as intentional action are dominant organizing concepts in psychology, although, with rare exceptions, concepts poorly articulated. In the realms of cognitive neuroscience, psychoanalysis, the theories of cognitive and behavior therapy, and the various humanistic approaches to psychology, everybody talks about intentionality but often without much clarity or agreement on meaning.

The formulation of Intentional Action used in Descriptive Psychology is serviceable across other disciplines and is intended to be part of the general conceptual framework of psychology. It is particularly useful when comparing and coordinating different theories in the behavioral sciences. The existing theories pay attention to certain aspects or parameters of Intentional Action while underplaying or ignoring others.

Intentional Action is the general case of purposeful, goal directed activity and is a common feature of all animal behavior. The varieties of Intentional Action specific to Persons are Cognizant Action and Deliberate Action.

The full case of Intentional Action has the conceptually separable parameters of Wants, Knowledge, Know-How, Significance, Performance, Achievement, Identity and Personal Characteristics.

The parameters are pre-empirical. They refer to distinctions that locate the “empirical data” but are not themselves a discovery in nature. They are akin to the “X” and “Y” axis of plane geometry. The parameters provide the framework for organizing the empirical data. Finding the specific content of the parameters requires observation. The parameters remind us what to look for.

The remarks that follow concern each of the parameters and focus on their use in maintaining an empathic relationship during psychotherapy. They could just as well serve as reminders for understanding any other activity that requires an adequate map of behavior.

Wants. Perhaps the most general answer to the question of why someone does something is answered in reference to some state of affairs that the person wishes to bring about. Wants refer to the motivations or values that determine how a person appraises his or her opportunities and dilemmas given what they see as their options in any given circumstance.

Although the paradigm case of human behavior involves a cognizant person knowing their values and being able to deliberate, i.e., choose whether or not to act on the values, it is also clear that a person can act on motives and values that are not consciously recognized (Schwartz, 1984), or involve motives that the person is deeply reluctant to claim as theirs (Kris, 1982). This is the subject matter of psychological defense and the dynamic unconscious, the traditional domain of psychoanalytic inquiry. A person’s motivations and opportunities that create reluctance or unconscious defense require empathic tact if they are to be explored, and psychotherapeutic techniques that honor the “conditions of safety” (Schafer, 1983) are traditionally employed in exploring them.

Some reminders: Actors and their observers might be accurate in knowing what “wants” are in play or they might be mistaken. Even when known, people might not be in a position to articulate what they want. Clarity and accuracy have a “more or less” quality and this will hold for the content of all the parameters. It is important to keep this in mind since insistence when attributing motivation, especially when there is disagreement or discomfort, tends to disrupt the safety of a relationship and may foreclose on exploring and appreciating the complexity of the situation.

What is wanted is often simple and clear and easy to say. Other times, it is complicated, multiply determined, conflicted, murky, ambiguous or “unspeakable” especially in the dilemmas that bring people to therapy. People often sense their complexity even if they are not able to speak about it, and this is often the case when they feel they are not adequately understood. Telling someone the reasons why they act as they do is frequently met with the rejoinder, “but it’s more than that” and it often is. And some people sometimes take offense when being told what they are feeling. It’s tricky when the issue is significant.

Ossorio (2006) suggested that there are at least four classifications of intrinsic or fundamental motivation: hedonic, prudent, aesthetic, and ethical. There may be more. To say they are fundamental is to claim that they intrinsically provide reason enough to do something. They stand on their own. These reasons for action can conflict, operate in a complementary or independent fashion, and so on. If you have two reasons to do something, you have more reason than if you only had one, etc.

Hedonics refers to pleasure, prudence to self-interest, aesthetics to values of truth, rigor, objectivity, beauty, closure, or fit, and ethics with concerns of fairness and justice. Hedonic and prudent motivations can operate consciously, pre-consciously, or unconsciously. Aesthetic and ethical motivations require that the actor is eligible to choose or refrain from an action, to potentially deliberate about a desirable course to follow. In the service of being able to choose, a person’s aesthetic and ethical motives are often consciously available (Schwartz, 1984). I can’t help it that it feels good, or that I see it as in my self-interest, but I can consciously attempt to refrain seeking pleasure or self-interest on aesthetic and/or ethical grounds.

Another point. Not doing a pleasurable act because of utter coercion, overwhelming guilt, or unconscious taboo may appear to be an ethical performance, but if the actor had no choice, their performance was not one of renouncing pleasure or self-interest but of forced constraint. A person can appear to do “the right thing” because they had no choice. It may be a mistake to point that out. Without enough shared history, it is hard to judge how a critical observation will be tolerated. This is a key feature of therapeutic tact and why careful listening comes first and may take considerable time before problematic motivations and constraints are interpreted. This is also the reminder that a person’s observable performance and their psychological state are conceptually separate. (And this is also why they involve distinct sets of parameters).

What a person wants is often not a simple matter. An empathic appreciation is respectful of this. It can be the case that what looks intended is instead accidental or coerced, and in those situations the empathic response acknowledges the absence of motive. Still, while we tend to be skeptical of the claim that “the devil made me do it”, it pays to be sensitive to why a person might make such a claim. The empathic therapist waits until it is safe enough to suggest otherwise.

Knowledge. Along with the basic question of why a person does something comes the question of why they are doing it now. The answer will always be some version of their recognition, correct or not, that the current circumstance provides an opportunity to do something they want to do. Action requires a correspondence between motive and opportunity.

The Knowledge parameter contains the range of concepts, facts, and distinctions a person has available and employs in a given situation. Knowledge is acquired by observation and thought. Knowledge is relevant to the extent that it involves recognitions that can be acted on, differences that make a difference in behavior. As a rule of thumb, people tend to notice what they value, including what they want to avoid. People can also act on distinctions and not be cognizant of making those distinctions, just as people might not recognize an opportunity when it stares them in the face.

A person may be wrong about what they think they know and this will have consequences especially if they believe they are competent or eligible in ways they are not. Knowledge can be clear or unclear, certain or uncertain, serviceable or unserviceable. Knowledge relevant to behavior is evaluated on how effectively the known distinctions can be employed, and this necessarily has a “more or less” quality to it.

The Knowledge parameter includes the potential awareness or cognizance of one’s own actions and potential choices. Cognizant recognition of choice is an aspect of Deliberate Action, and is a conceptual requirement for an ethical perspective to be employed or considered. The recognition of choice or option, including the potential to renounce a choice, serves as one of the ordinary standards for accountability. Negligence occurs in situations where community standards hold that an ethical dilemma ought to be recognized but isn’t. Significant negligence of ethical consideration with attendant action (or inaction) is central to most formulations of criminality and tort (see, e.g., Prosser, 1941).

The eligibility for certain recognitions and choices has a learning history. The empathic actor knows this about the other. Given where and how someone has grown up, what can they be expected to know? What we expect people to know will be influenced both by shared cultural expectations and by an appreciation of the idiosyncratic. Even though membership in a culture involves knowing certain standard choice principles, we have to be careful what we presume. Similarly, understanding that a person might have an underdeveloped or diminished capacity is also part of the empathic observer’s knowledge of the other. If a situation ordinarily calls for a person to do something, if they lack the relevant knowledge (or the values or know how), they will do something else instead. A person can only act on the concepts they have available unless their performance is coerced by factors they do not recognize. Consider the rare case of the puppet.

Know-How. An action is always an expression of a particular skill, competence, or know-how if it is something a person can expect to perform non-accidently. Competence is acquired through practice and experience. Not everyone has the needed practice and experience to develop the competencies a community might take for granted. And some people are more talented than others in acquiring or exceeding the expected skills. Their performance can look like magic.

Having the relevant know-how means that a person can perform an action in a variety of ways with the expected outcome that the actor achieves what is intended. Think of driving a car or dancing with a friend or throwing a fastball high inside and ninety-five miles an hour. Drivers, dancers, and professional pitchers have their expected know-how acquired by having a prior capacity and sufficient practice and experience. Behavior going wrong calls for an explanation once adequate competence has been achieved; behavior going right requires no explanation. Bobby’s walking toward the couch and sitting down requires no explanation, but his repeated stumbling does.

Akin to what some call procedural memory, once competence is acquired, people are rarely self-conscious of each move necessary in the performance of a task. We tend to be more self-conscious when we believe, correctly or not, that we lack the competence to act in the manner a situation demands. The absence of self-recognized competence may turn what would be opportunity into threat, manageable hazard into feared danger. It is unsurprising when worry, anxiety or panic are features of a situation when a person believes they lack the relevant competence to handle a problematic or even desired state of affairs. This is why the Know-How parameter is of special relevance to what a person can tolerate (Schwartz 2002).

Defensively, we are only somewhat able to tolerate how we are seen or what we consciously know. Defensive styles represent personal characteristics, sometimes unconscious, that limit or shelter a person’s awareness to what they can tolerate at any given time. Defenses may be automatically applied even when a person has outgrown their serviceability. The empathic clinician keeps this in mind. I think that a good deal of successful “interpretations of defense” are a result of an empathic therapist recognizing that the client can now tolerate what in the past gave them good reason to remain defensively unaware. What was good to avoid in infancy and childhood may no longer be intolerable, even if the person hasn’t recognized that yet. Successful confrontation that a person can do more than they claim follows a careful gathering of evidence.

Psychotherapy is often an exercise in acquiring the competence to sit still and experiment with thought and emotional response. Empathy is a major aspect of making it safe enough to sit still and practice confronting what might otherwise be unthinkable or intolerable. Patience and practice are required. This is the love in the work.

Significance. Significance is what a person is also doing by doing an act in question. It is, so to speak, what they are up to. Behavior is organized by its significance and implemented by the particular practices a person engages in.

Empathically, I am aware that what a person’s behavior signifies to me may be different from what it means to them. I also keep in mind that they may not appreciate what I see as the significance of their behavior, regardless of how compelling the evidence. I don’t have a pipeline to the truth. I to Thou involves being clear that mystery and uncertainty remains.

In appreciating and acknowledging the significance of an action, especially when that acknowledgment involves interpretation, all the dilemmas of attempting to make the unconscious conscious, all of the problems of attempting to get someone in touch with what they are reluctant to see, come into play. Therapeutically, confronting someone while they are defensive requires tact. Tact requires empathy; it requires an empathic appreciation that a person at any given time can tolerate only so much. People have to cope with how they are seen and this comes into play during psychotherapy. Being seen in ways that a person might be reluctant to acknowledge is akin to the vulnerability that attends intimacy. One’s lovers, close friends, and therapists may be given permission to test the boundaries of self-understanding, but even when insight comes from a person’s closest confidants, it still might be intolerable.

Here’s a story that I tell my students.

A baseball player, a pitcher, regularly throws a fastball high inside at ninety-five miles an hour. He mixes this up with a nasty curveball and is known for the occasional wild pitch. He has hit more than one batter in the helmet. Those that know him outside the game have seen him tease his wife and children beyond what makes his audience comfortable. This teasing makes his family unhappy. He doesn’t seem to notice their unhappiness. With his wife and kids, he thinks he is just being playful. You might think he is sadistic and mean and enjoys making people uncomfortable and helpless. This is why his preferred pitch to a batter he has previously hit is to throw fast, high and very inside.

He had a severe and strict moralistic upbringing and now looks at himself from a perspective of moral superiority. Guilt is very hard for him to acknowledge or bear. It is reasonable to assume that he’d feel guilty and ashamed if he knew how he looks but defensively he is not going to see himself in that light.

Instead, he sees himself as a talented pitcher with a clear appreciation of the strike zone and of the pitches hardest for his opponent to hit. He views himself as a tough-minded sportsman, hypercompetitive but fair, and accepts only that the significance of his pitches are to strike out the batter, end the inning and win the game. If he was asked if these pitches are also how he’ll get his contract renewed, feel the admiration of the crowd, and live the life of the ball player, he could probably acknowledge all of that. But beyond what he can acknowledge about the significance of his pitches, he may also use his style of throw to achieve some sort of sadistic pleasure. It could be that the way he felt helpless and punished as a child is being worked out unconsciously in his manner of play both on the field and off. He cuts that high inside corner on the wrong side more often than his consummate skill should allow. His satisfaction at making the batter wince is too much for him to resist. Since he is unaware of his sadism, he doesn’t control it well. In looking over his life a through-line of sadism emerges implemented by his treatment of family and opposing players. An empathic interpretation of his sadism would require considerable tact and care. It would be resisted.

Identity. Every action is someone’s action and that someone has a name and a title or some sort of individual status marker. The Identity parameter specifies that. A person’s name and title used out loud or silently in a social interaction is a significant status marker and may frame how one person appreciates the context and meaning of the other’s action. Addressing or responding to someone by their nickname has different implications than responding to them as Professor or Doctor or Ms. or boy or “hey you”.

How a person feels understood, and what they will tolerate from another’s representation of them may significantly reflect the names that are used. Empathy involves being held in mind in a particular fashion that may be reflected by the means of address. And, of course, people have various responses to their names being forgotten and may experience such a forgetting as a breach in empathy.

Personal Characteristics. People’s behaviors are an expression of their personal characteristics as they show their colors, true or otherwise. People vary in their Powers and Dispositions. A person’s behavior follows from their psychological state and status, their values, knowledge and skills, their traits, attitudes, interests and styles, as they encounter the world.

People may want their actions judged as “in character” or not. Problematic or laudable behavior labeled as “out of character” does not create the conditions for degradation or accreditation that these same actions do if they are recognized as “in character” (Ossorio, 2005; Schwartz, 1979). We offer praise or give people breaks in ways that depend on this distinction. It gives them and us wiggle room.

Performance and Achievement. A performance is an episode of behavior in real time with a beginning and an end. It can be interrupted and it achieves some difference.

We do not directly observe what a person wants, knows, and knows how to do in the sense of being inside their head; instead, we observe their performance. We watch and participate in their social practices. But whatever their behavioral performance, if it is an aspect of an Intentional Action, it achieves some difference in the world, be it trivial or profound.

Behavior as “Intentional Action” is one of the basic interdependent components of the more general “Person Concept”. The others are Individual Person, Language, World and Community. Some of this has already been discussed in these writing and the rest will follow. A full formulation can be found in Peter Ossorio’s The Behavior of Persons.

Earlier I posted on a method for regaining empathy and the problem of finding a common understanding of empathy.

Adapted from my “The Parameters of Empathy: Core Considerations for Psychotherapy and Supervision”, The Advances in Descriptive Psychology, Vol. 10, in press.

Written by Wynn Schwartz, PhD
SJS Contributor


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