Thursday, August 8, 2019

Agency: The Ability to Initiate Actions

I have identified a personality trait that doesn't seem to be discussed much by psychologists: agency.

In general use, agency is defined as "action or intervention, especially to produce a particular effect."

My own definition is more specific: Agency is "a persistant trait exhibited by individuals where they frequently and consistently initiate constructive actions deviating from a fixed pattern."

The opposite of agency, in my view is reactivity, or the ability to respond to outside events.

A simple example: If I throw a ball at you, and you catch the ball and throw it back, you are not exhibiting agency. You are exhibiting reactivity. You are reacting to the actions of someone else. On the other hand, if you see a ball, pick it up and throw it at me, you are exhibiting agency. You are no reacting to any outside event (apart from seeing the ball). You are initiating your own independent actions.

Another word for agency is initiative. Some people display a lot of initiative; some show very little.

Everyone is capable of reactivity. Something happens to you, and you respond. Not many people exhibit agency, at least on a consistent basis.

If a gunman walks into a school and shoots the place up, he is exhibiting agency in that particular instance. He hatched the plan all by himself and put together all the elements to make it happen—buying the gun, stockpiling ammo, etc.. This does not necessarily make him a high-agency individual because keys parts of my definition aren't met: "frequently and consistently initiates constructive actions." Shooting up a school isn't constructive for either the students or the gunman, and it isn't frequent or consistent. This is probably the first time he has taken such an action. If you look at the gunman's life, you will probably see a persistant pattern of passivity, where he doesn't take much action to address the problems of his life. The school shooting is an explosive reaction to all the pent up frustrations caused by his passivity.

People can be evaluated based on whether they exhibit high agency or low agency. Most people life their whole lives taking very little initiative. In fact, some highly successful people can have very low initiative. In school, assignments are given to them, and they complete them. When they go to work, they do the same. They join a company; assignments are given to them, and they are evaluated based on their reactive performance. People who do well are promoted. Their life disintegrates only when the structure around them goes away and they are forced to come up with their own assignments. Low-agency people can't do it. They fall back into a pattern of repeated acts that aren't usually very constructive.

Choice is not the same as agency. If ask you to choose between Coke and Pepsi, and you take Pepsi, you have made a choice, but you haven't exhibited initiative. I set up the assignment for you, and you simply fulfilled it. Agency requires thinking outside the box and coming up with your own assignment. You may be prompted by a outside event, like seeing a ball on the grass, but the impetus for action is coming from inside you, no from an outside force. The ball on the grass isn't pushing you to do anything. It is you who turned the inert ball into action.

People with low agency tend to be followers, while high-agency people often become leaders, but the fact that someone is in a leadership position doesn't make them high-agency. Many people who have been placed in leadership roles are in fact very passive. They follow the direction of their advisors and take few proactive actions. A certain President of the United States appears to exhibit high agency. He is always tweeting things to upset people. This is certainly a frequent and consistent behavior, but it it not constructive—for the country or himself—and it doesn't deviate from a fixed pattern.

Busy activity is not the same as agency. Doing a lot of stuff according to a pre-existing pattern does not imply initiative. It would take initiate to deviate from that fixed pattern and do things differently.

Meth addicts and manic-depressives may exhibit agency during their manic phase, but it isn't consistent and it usually isn't constructive. They may initiate a lot of actions but they rarely complete them. If we are treating agency as a personality trait, we have to look at their behavior over time. The manic phase of stimulant use or bipolar disorder is balanced out by the depressive phase, when the person initiates few actions.

I observe that habitual drug use of any kind tends to result a loss of agency. The stereotypical pothead lounges around the house, watches TV and does nothing new. He may hold down a job but he isn't particularly motivated to improve himself. I am not a drug user myself—Only caffeine has tempted me.—but watching friends and acquaintances fall into various drug habits over the years, I have seen them transformed from Go-Getters to Do-Nothingers. They may still be nice people, and if you throw a ball at them they'll throw it back, but the won't pick up the ball and throw it themselves. This suggests to me that there is a specific brain structure involved in agency that gets burned out by drugs.

Unpredictability does not imply agency. A lot of people try their best to be outrageous in everything they say and do. They may get a lot of tattoos or dress flamboyantly or need to be the life of the party. They want attention above all else, and they try to get it be constantly breaking the mold, but even breaking the mold can become a tired pattern after a while. Liberace, for example, was always trying to be outrageous. Each new outfit or sequin-encrusted possession was more over-the-top than the last. At a certain point, however, he became a caricature of himself: completely predictable in his unpredictability.

The key to constructive agency is foresight: looking ahead to try to predict and improve the future. Doing outrageous things doesn't necessarily improve your future. Your life is improved by anticipating future problems and trying to prevent them before they happen. Someone with genuinely high agency is always playing a chess game with their future, trying to anticipate the game many moves ahead. On the surface, their actions may seem inexplicable, but internally they are motivated by a long-term plan.

High-agency people tend to be more successful than others, but it depends on how you define "success". Many materially successful people have very little initiative, while many with high initiative have few rewards to show for it (like yours truly). There are ways to define success other than material reward. Something easier to observe is the prevalence of self-destructive acts. Because they can solve problems pre-emptively, high-agency people are less likely to engage in actions that hurt them in the long run.

Agency is difficult to change in others, if not impossible. You can't just tell a pothead to take more initiative. You can force them to react—say, by stealing their pot—but you can't force them to take new actions at their own initiative. They either have this ability or they don't.

Cultivating agency in yourself is a different matter. You can take initiative to take more initiative. If you are lying on your couch and you realize there is something you should be doing, you can either (a) put it off until later, or (b) get up and do it now. If you choose (b), you are exhibiting agency. If you repeat this pattern of behavior often, it strengthens the pro-initiative connections in your brain. It's like exercising a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

I consider myself a high-agency individual. When I woke up this morning with an idea, I could have filed it away as an interesting thought and gone ahead with my plans for the day. Instead, I decided to stop everything else and write this essay. No one assigned the essay to me; it was entirely self-motivated. It would have been a different if I was a journalist and my editor had assigned the job to me. In that case, I wouldn't have had anything interesting of my own to say. The best I could have done is call up some experts and get their opinions. The resulting article might have been interesting, but it would not have been original.

In general, the best people to have in your life are high-agency. You want people who take initiative and solve problems pre-emptively. If nothing else, high-agency people tend to be more fun, since you never know what they'll think of next. On the other hand, high-agency people are hard to hold down. A employer may hire someone because they are a Go-Getter with a lot of initiative. They may perform well for a while, but if a better offer comes along, they are likely to jump on it.

That's the peril of Go-Getters: They get up and go.