Journal Article
Wieber, F., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Seebaß, G.

Limits of intentionality

Wieber, F., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Seebaß, G. (2011). Limits of intentionality. Social Psychology, 42, 4-8.


How do people control their actions in order to serve their needs, desires, and goals? The fundamentals of intentional action control are a continuing topic of debate in social psychological research (e.g., Bargh, 2005; Bargh, Gollwitzer, & Oettingen, 2010; Baumeister, Masicampo, & Vohs, in press; Hofmann, Friese, & Strack, 2009; Morsella, Bargh, & Gollwitzer, 2009; Wegner, 2002) as well as in philosophy (e.g., Bratman, 1999; Dennett, 1987; Holton, 2009; Mele, 2009; Roughley, 2008; Searle, 1983; Seebaß, 1993). Whereas previous psychological research focused more on the effects of the strength and the content of intentions on the success of action control (e.g., Bandura, 1997; Dweck, 1996; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Higgins, 1997; Locke & Latham, 1990; Ryan & Deci, 2000), in recent years the focus has shifted to processes relevant to intentional action control (e.g., Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007; Brehm & Self, 1989; Carver & Scheier, 1998; Gendolla, Brinkmann, & Richter, 2007; Gollwitzer, 1999; Kuhl, 2000; Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001). As a consequence, the limits of intentionality have become a pressing research question: For example, how do a person’s bad habits limit the formation and execution of intentions geared toward overcoming unwanted habitual responses? The emergence of data relevant to the limits of intentionality reveals a subject whose complexity calls for an interdisciplinary approach to enrich the conceptual and methodological perspective of social psychological research on intentionality (see Grammont, Legrand, & Livet, 2010; van Lange, 2006; Vierkant, 2008).
The present special issue of Social Psychologytherefore aspires to bring together characteristic perspectives from different disciplines in an analysis of the limits of intentional action control. The contributions in this special issue cover a broad range of research programs, comprising several theoretical and empirical contributions from the field of cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and motivation psychology, as well as philosophy and neuroscience. A look at the 10 articles of this special issue quickly reveals the diversity of the different perspectives – as well as important conceptual and methodological similarities. Because we feel that the integration of different perspectives has the potential to propel research on the limits of intentionality, the articles of the special issue are organized along the comprehensive categories of conscious and unconscious action control.
There is a continuing debate about the contribution of conscious and unconscious processes to human action control. The central importance of unconscious processes for intentional action control has been highlighted in some accounts that conceptualize them as “sophisticated monitoring and control systems that can guide behavior over extended periods of time in a changing environment, in pursuit of desired goals” (Bargh, 2005, p. 43). The importance of conscious processes for intentional action control has been emphasized by research investigating the importance of conscious thought for successful action control (see Baumeister et al., in press). Significantly, the articles in this special issue neither overstate the power of conscious control of action – as sometimes has been the case in the European rationalist tradition and in cognitive psychology as well (e.g., Loftus & Klinger, 1992) – nor do they draw an overly pessimistic picture of conscious action control – as seen in psychoanalysis and certain forms of behaviorism (e.g., Skinner, 1938). We feel that the concept of intentional action control as a mixture of conscious and unconscious processing opens an avenue to new empirical and conceptual research questions that have the potential to propel research on the limits of intentionality beyond traditional dual-process views.