Date: December 2020 | Autho(s): Dorette Lochner

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ever heard of volition?

It’s the art of effectively translating an intention into action – and not regretting it afterwards!


Research psychologists have long been fascinated by what drives and motivates people, what inspires them to act, and what resources they need to actively transform their intentions into actions.

Motivation theories provide some answers to these questions. They explain what needs people have and explore the factors that motivate them. For example, researchers have carried out extensive studies on the need for achievement, the power motive, and the need for affiliation. These research findings show how the value placed on different factors and topics varies from one individual to the next. Researchers have also delved deep into the question of what motivates individuals in their careers.

The literature on this subject includes numerous lists of all sorts of different motives, some that have a solid scientific basis, and some that don’t! Practitioners also use a wide array of diagnostic instruments to identify an individual’s motive profile with the aim of predicting their behaviour at school, at work, or in other areas of their lives. 

Motivation has long been regarded as a key factor in the context of employee development. In fact, nearly all leadership training interventions include obligatory references to Maslow, Herzberg, McClelland and Pink. 

Volition, however, does not receive the same level of attention. Many HR development experts are unfamiliar with the term, even though volitional competence is essential to success at work. Volition and motivation are closely related – so much so that one often doesn’t work without the other! That’s especially true when our motivation is complicated by conflicting urges – for example, when we are motivated to get something done but are also a little afraid of doing it. Situations in which we might experience this feeling include going to the dentist, making a presentation, or tackling a difficult conversation to ask for a pay rise. That’s when volition really comes into its own. Volition is the ability to regulate emotion and other mental efforts, stay on task, and attain our goal. It means not being frightened by the exercise of our own will, and not letting inertia prevent us from acting.

Take the example of a difficult conversation, i.e. a situation where we have finally plucked up the courage to address an important topic. We’ve all experienced that hopeful feeling that the conversation will push the issue in the right direction – that’s what gives us our motivation to act. But, at the same time, we are a little nervous about tackling the subject. We worry that the other person might take things the wrong way, and that the relationship might get even worse – two things we’re obviously keen to avoid. In this example, we have two motivating factors pushing against each other. What’s even more annoying is that our nerves get worse the closer we get to having the conversation.

That’s where volition comes in. Only if we are capable of keeping our eye on the goal, plucking up courage, and putting ourselves in the right emotional state will we actually see our intention through. If we fail to regulate our mental efforts in this way, our motivation will plummet and we will probably give up before the conversation even starts. Unfortunately, this situation is made even worse by the rationalisation effect. This is where we try to convince ourselves afterwards that the matter was less important to us then we thought. Subconsciously, however, we know that we simply chickened out!

There are many examples of cases where we do not exhibit enough volitional control over our actions to achieve implementation – even though the motivation to act was there.


Action phases from a psychological perspective

Motivation phase

An action can be broken down into different phases. It begins with an initial disposition to act, which emerges when we perceive an opportunity to satisfy a need. At this point, one of our motives is activated. Before we actually decide to act, however, we spend a certain amount of time deliberating what effects and side-effects the action might have, what alternatives there are, and what additional information we need to make the decision.

In this phase, known as the motivation phase, critical realism is the key. The aim here is to take a broader view of the opportunities, risks and long-term consequences, and indeed of our own abilities and other available resources.

Volition phase

After the deliberation comes the decision; either we reject the option of taking action altogether, or the process of deliberation yields a concrete intention. This is where volition comes into play. It helps us focus our attention on implementation. It’s no longer a question of weighing up costs and benefits, but rather focusing with a sense of optimism on the action phase and our ability to influence its outcome. If we start deliberating again at this stage, or become pessimistic as soon as we encounter the first obstacle, we will lose the energy to see things through – regardless of whether our goal is a difficult conversation or a sporting achievement.

Evaluation phase

Once we have realised our intention by acting, we typically reflect on and evaluate the action we took. Once again, this phase includes various thought processes, some of which are beneficial and others that will weaken us in the future. Obviously, our determination to act will not be strengthened if, after taking an action, we constantly replay in our head all the opportunities that we failed to take. For example, if we buy an item of furniture and then constantly brood over all the other pieces of furniture that we didn’t buy, this is likely to throw our whole decision into doubt. Some people experience this “regret effect” so frequently that it becomes a habit.

Another important post-action thought process is attribution theory. This is about how we explain our successes and failures to ourselves – and how these explanations can strengthen or weaken us. Those who attribute their successes to luck rather than their own abilities tend to diminish their self-confidence. Self-efficacy can also be depleted by attributing our failures to our own lack of intuition, awareness or talent with thoughts such as: “I never learn” or “I’m just not confident enough”. We can avoid these negative effects by reaching for alternative explanations such as: “Okay, this time it didn’t work, but I can learn to do that better.”

Self-regulation is something we can train

Usually, of course, we are completely unaware of our own thought processes, the feelings they produce, and the ways in which our attention shifts from one thing to the next. These things happen spontaneously, almost like a reflex. Volition psychologists refer to these automatic processes as our “initial reaction” or “primary response”. Since this primary response is driven partly by genetics and partly by neuronal processes during early development, changing it is a long and arduous process. For example, people who suffer stage fright in front of a crowd will find it extremely hard to break the habit. And those who shy away from emotional discussions and leave others to dominate in the initial stages will probably never feel comfortable when other people exhibit strong emotions. Trying to find ways to eliminate this primary response is not a particularly promising approach – and it is also unnecessary.

That’s because the key to our self-efficacy lies in our “secondary response”. The secondary response refers to our ability to use an assortment of little “tricks” to focus our attention and stop dysfunctional thought processes in their tracks. In regard to stage fright, for example, researchers have discovered that we should not abandon ourselves to the thought “I’m so nervous”, but neither should we try to “wish away” our anxiety by trying to convince ourselves that we are totally calm. The best approach is to simply tell ourselves: “I’m excited!”. These are strategies that can be learned.  The best way to start is by taking a close look at these processes and becoming more aware of them. We can then achieve greater self-efficacy by improving our skills through self-instructional training, learning to stop dysfunctional thoughts in their tracks, self-visualisation and stimulus control.

Bibliography: To find out more about current research and teaching related to motivation and volition, we recommend the following reference work, which is both readable and accessible: Heckhausen, J. & Heckhausen, H. (ed.) (2018) Motivation and Action. Springer Verlag.