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Sets of dispositions (to actions)

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

Dispositions: not feelings but actions are their root nature. Think of actions as resources. The usual "commonsense" view of instincts is that they correspond to one big function or purpose e.g.: reproduce / eat / escape. Analogue "planning" not digital.

A. Dispositions to action
When people today think about emotions, they tend to think of them as alternative kinds of feelings. In fact, it is probably more insightful to think of them as alternative dispositions to action (DtoAs) e.g. fear IS the disposition to flee and/or hide. The general idea is that we have inside us some standard responses or actions, and an instant reaction to some event is to select one from a small set of types of possible action.

B. Think of actions as resources
Or rather, think of DtoAs as resources for deciding plans and action on the fly; and not as just dormant plan/software libraries. Not large libraries, but small sets of alternatives, which are not at all fully fixed but are initial tendencies. Because the "libraries" are primarily decision-making resources, rather than careful, complex, pre-planned actions.

C. Evolutionary functions vs. DtoAs
The usual "commonsense" view of instincts is that they correspond to one big function or purpose e.g.: / eating / self-protection / reproduction. But the DtoAs are smaller. We as theorists may "explain" them as contributing to joined up actions that deliver the big functions, but observations support DtoAs much better.

D. Analogue "planning" not digital.
Each disposition may have its own level of activation, and fight it out with the alternatives.

How likely we are to enact such a DtoA in our current situation varies, partly with whether other emotions are pushing in another direction (anger is often visibly balanced by fear). Furthermore, the detailed implementation (plan) varies according to situation too (will I strike them, throw things at them, try to recruit supporters for a joint attack, think of something really hurtful to say, ....). And after that, we may start to think about the cost of each action: but the preliminary shape of our response was determined very quickly, but very roughly, by these ready-made small sets of dispositions to action.

The idea of a set of DtoAs is similar to Konrad Lorenz's view of instincts in ch.6 of On Agression. This chapter is about the ways an animal's set of instincts can interact with each other. Furthermore that each such instinct has some degree of autonomous force. And they may counteract each other; or in displacement activcities, the "force" of one drive may get expressed in a dysfunctional way e.g. you have a bad day at work and are angry with your boss, then take it out by snapping at your family and friends.

This suggests that in animals, including humans, planning is analogue not digital; and amounts to quantitative balance, not exact pre-planning of action.

E. The real heart of this web page is a shift in perspective

Once this perspective is adopted, then you may start to notice that a number of apparently quite separate areas of psychology can also be seen as sets of dispositions to action. This page explores this little thought. There are several different sets, quite different in their origins, that have in common that they are sets of dispositions to action.

Ravens' sequence of actions

I cannot now find something which I read long ago. I think it was by Konrad Lorenz, but I might be wrong. I think it was ravens but it might have been another species of corvid.

The observation as I remember it was that young ravens generally follow a fixed sequence of responses when a new, strange object appears or is found by them.

When the affordance of an object is NOT clear, then discovering it amounts to trying out all your set of actions on the object in turn to see if any "work" usefully. You can see human infants put almost anything into their mouths; throw anything out of their cots; ....

The lesson that has remained with me is of creatures who learn about objects through a fixed set of actions which yield information as well as, occasionally, material rewards. Affordances cannot always be perceived directly; sometimes they can only be learned through interaction (play, exploration).


Human emotions can be seen as infinitely variable; but also can by many be seen as consisting of a small fixed number. Each of these is not only a feeling, nor a facial expression, but is also associated with a particular class or type of action. Here I have arbitrarily picked a set of seven.


Stages of grieving (and of other things)

These are all attitudes that dictate types of action, or predispose toward one type. The fact that typically a person does not move through these in a strict and predictable sequence only reinforces the realisation that they are possible types of action, not part of a fixed, rational plan.


Page on the golden mean
The most widely validated model of personality identifies five independent dimensions. A given person has particular amounts of each of these five. These dimensions are frequently labelled with a single term e.g. "openness"; but actually, it is more helpful to recognse that average people will have a value mid-way between two opposite values; thus the "openness" dimension is actually one that runs between openness and close-mindedness.
This bipolar view was the one Aristotle had in his model of virtues, leading to the term the golden mean. His example was that the virtuous soldier exhibits the golden mean between cowardice and foolhardiness.


"Catastrophisation" is a name for what some people do when, as soon as they hear of some symptom or event, they instantly put the worst possible interpretation on it. But if we think of this as a disposition to select fear as the guiding principle for interpreting events and their impending consequences, then there could be corresponding "mental reflexes" for each emotion. I.e. perhaps there are variants on catastrophisation, where the person instantly interprets a new event as meriting that disposition.

Not alternative dispositions, but stages

Related yet contrasting are things like the 6 (or 12) steps to recover from addiction. While the sets of dispositions are each a set of alternative actions, the 6 steps are steps all of which must be accomplished to achieve recovery. You need all of them, not to pick one from the set depending on the situation.

This is similar to CBT -- cognitive behavioural therapy. The therapy and the client must tackle and change both the cognitions (thoughts) and the behaviours; and contrary to was commonly thought, these are not alternative therapies.

Most human action is under-determined

Simple determination: one action, one reason for it   Ordinary things in life are usually done for one reason only e.g. I drop into the local newsagent on, but only on, the days I want to buy the TV listings or a bit of stationery.

Over-determination   Freud noted, however, that the really big things in life such as choosing whom you marry, what house you will live in, what job/career you will pursue are done for multiple reasons (are "over-determined"), so that if one of those reasons later fails, it may very well not mean changing that decision. Such actions are selected AND performed for multiple strong reasons.

Under-determination   But a different observation we should note is that a lot of human action is under-determined: that knowing what a person is doing an action for, often (usually) gets nowhere near letting you predict exactly what they do. I need to get to work most days: that is why I do the journey. But I might choose my method of travel to get some exercise, to pass through a green space, to be able to chat to my friend regularly by sharing the mode of transport (even if it isn't the very quickest way for me to travel). And this is just one tiny example of the under-determination of human actions by understanding only the main goal of the action.

To execute most actions entails taking many more decisions about methods which are not determined by the main goal. This is both a fact about planning in general, and also a psychological fact about how human planning seems to work, and how human behaviour has so much variability in it.

Just some of the main types of under-determination of human actions

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