Psychology, Agency In

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Psychology, Agency In


The concept of agency as a psychological dimension refers to the process of behaving with intentionality. Human beings exercise agency when they intentionally influence their own functioning, environments, life circumstances, and destiny. To posit that human beings have agency is to contend that they are self-organizing, proactive, self-regulating, and self-reflecting rather than reactively shaped by environmental forces or driven by concealed inner impulses. This is not to say that people always behave agentically. A driver who inadvertently runs a stop sign would not be considered the agent of that event because he did not intend to commit the infraction. An intention is a mental representation of a future course of action to be performed. It represents a proactive commitment to act.

Human agency has four core properties. The first is intentionality. People create and engage plans and strategies with which they realize their predetermined intentions to act in a certain manner. The second property is forethought, which addresses the temporal dimension of human agency. People make plans, set goals, and anticipate the likely outcomes of their prospective actions. To set plans in motion so as to bring about the desired outcomes, people must self-regulate their thinking and behavior. Thus, the third property of human agency is self-reactiveness, a process through which individuals not only make plans and choices but also construct the appropriate courses of action and regulate their execution. Because actions must be examined in order to be corrected, the fourth agentic property is self-reflectiveness. Through proactive self-awareness, people can reflect on their capabilities, the soundness of their thoughts and actions, and the meaning of their pursuits. As a consequence, they can make needed adjustments.

In addition to possessing four properties, agency operates through three modes: individual, proxy, and collective. When agency is exercised individually, one brings ones own personal influence to bear on ones own functioning and on the environmental events that comprise ones life. When people cannot exercise their personal influence, however, they must seek their well-being and obtain the outcomes they desire through the exercise of proxy agency. In this mode, people appeal to others who can secure these benefits for them. Thus, children turn to parents, students to teachers, and citizens to elected officials. Finally, people must often work together to obtain the things they need. Thus, they must pool their knowledge, skills, and resources, form alliances to advance common interests, and work collectively to obtain those things that they cannot obtain on their own.

To exercise human agency, people must believe in their capability to attain given ends. These self-efficacy beliefs are the foundation of human motivation, well-being, and accomplishment. Whatever other factors serve as guides and motivators, they are rooted in the core belief that one has the power to effect changes by ones actions, that ones locus of control is internal rather than external. This is because unless people believe that their actions can produce the outcomes they desire, they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties.

SEE ALSO Self-Determination Theory


Bandura, Albert. 1982. Self-Efficacy Mechanism in Human Agency. American Psychologist 37: 122-147.

Bandura, Albert. 1989. Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory. American Psychologist 44: 11751184.

Elder, Glen H., Jr. 1994. Time, Human Agency, and Social Change: Perspectives on the Life Course. Social Psychology Quarterly 57: 415.

Markus, Hazel R., and Shinobu Kitayama. 1991. Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation. Psychological Review 98: 224253.

Frank Pajares

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Psychology, Agency In

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