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  • Writer's pictureThe MoHO OT

Volition; the biological need for action

Updated: May 10, 2021

Humans have a fundamental need to act, this coupled with an awareness of our potential creates an inbuilt desire to utilise this power, with failure and/or an inability to use this power resulting in dysfunction and unhappiness. Thus, begins the concept of volition. This fundamental, neurological need for action is the foundation of a person's drive to engage in occupations and encompasses how a person feels about oneself. The volitional cycle is used by Occupational Therapists to enable consideration of how a person anticipates, chooses, experiences and interprets what they do. While, volitional thoughts are used to address what we hold important (values), what we perceive we can / are able to do (personal causation) and what we find enjoyable (interests).

Our unique volitional thoughts and feelings are rooted in our very biology and guide what we chose to do and therefore, can facilitate self-organisation and frame our understanding our ourselves. A wide array of factors shape our volition; our physical state, our thoughts and feelings and our environmental factors (de las Heras, et al., 2019) and therefore, influence what capacities we go on to develop, what we seek out and enjoy and what we consider important. These in turn are reinforced (negatively and positively) and shaped by our personal history, our experiences and our life events.

While volition is an internal phenomena, it is also heavily influenced by our culture and the environment around us by how we feel about our personal effectiveness and the importance we assign to occupations. For example, morals, importance attributed to educational merit, stereotypical role filling, fashion choices... It is a dynamic interaction between our inner thoughts and feelings and the conditions in the environment around us. Therefore, our culture inadvertently shapes what abilities we see as important and have the greatest meaning to us, what past times we consider enjoyable and what we strive to achieve (Bruner, 1990; Gergen and Gergen, 1983, 1988; Markus, 1983).

Volition is not a static concept. It is an ongoing process of change as a result in our experiences of participating in occupations, how we interpret those experiences, how we anticipate further experiences based on previous learning, and how we chooses occupations based on the experience anticipated. Therefore, our volition can be disrupted and / or follow patterns linked to emotional, cognitive, physical, psychological, and/or environmental restrictions or limitations. We break these patterns or end these disruptions by creating new interpretations of ourself and our environment through exposure to new choices and new experiences.

Along with patterns and/or hiatuses, our level of volition (less or more) can change and therefore volition is represented by a continuum. The continuum, from less to more, is represented in three stages; exploration, competency and achievement. For a person to proceed through the continuum requires an increased sense of capacity and efficacy, greater attraction to and satisfaction from doing and an ability to invest in and realise their own values in what they are doing.

Exploration is the lowest level of motivation, it is when a person is able to display a desire to interact with their environment and can experience pleasure from doing so. Exploration is manifested in curiosity and interest, the occupation will have significance and the participant will initiate interactions with their surroundings. Exploration will occur in safe and interesting environments where the risk of failure is absent. When assessing a volition, a person who shows curiosity, initiates actions/tasks, tries new things, shows preferences and/or shows that an activity is special or significant is in the exploration phase (de las Hears, et al., 2007).

Competency is found in the middle of the continuum and refers to the level of volition where a person is able to build upon a sense of efficacy and enjoyment in doing things generated through the exploration stage. It is characterised by the drive to actively engage and influence the environment and reflects a growing sense of personal control and a willingness to be effective. The focus at this stage is on consistent, satisfactory performance, problem solving, correcting mistakes and staying involved in the activity. When a person is competent, the quality of the outcome and standards of performance are important to the individual (de las Hears, et al., 2007).

Achievement refers to the highest level on the continuum and to a level of volition that allows for the person to attempt to master new skills and/or occupational forms/tasks. At this level individuals perform consistently and are able to respond to environmental demands. It incorporates a sense of capacity and efficacy, a sense of pleasure in acting and requires that a sense of meanings is acquired/realised from the previous two stages. This level involves having the desire to increase or maintain our capacity and want to interact with our environment. At this stage the person will attempt to achieve an outcome that will meet their internalised standards of success and will be able to apply themselves to achieve consistency, quality and new levels of accomplishment. When at this end of the spectrum a person will visibly persists in their endeavours, invests additional attention and energy into their performance and seeks out new challenge and responsibilities (de las Hears, et al., 2007).

To understand a person’s volition, where they are on the continuum and how we as therapists will enable change we must consider personal causation, values and interests as three interwoven components; we want to feel competent at doing the things that we value and we tend to find the things we do well enjoyable. Therefore, as therapists we must spend time to unpick what motivates our clients and why, considering the relationship dynamically and how each part is affected by the other. Personal causation, values and interests will be explored in the next three blog posts.


Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

de las Heras, C. G., Geist, R., Kielhofner, G. and Yanling, L. (2007) Volitional Questionnaire (VQ) Chicago: Model of Human Occupation Clearinghouse, Department of Occupational Therapy, College of Applied Health Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago

de las Heras, C. G., Llerena, V., and Kielhofner, G. (2019) A user's manual for Remotivation Process: Progressive Intervention for Individuals with Severe Volitional Challenges Chicago: Model of Human Occupation Clearinghouse, Department of Occupational Therapy, College of Applied Health Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago

Gergen, K. J. and Gergen, M. M. (1983) Narratives of the self. In T. R. Sarbin and K. E. Scheibe (Eds) Studies in social identity. New York, NY: Praeger

Gergen, K. J. and Gergen, M. M. (1988) Narrative and the self as relationship. In L. Berkowitz (Ed) Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 17 - 56) San Diego, CA: Academic Press

Markus, H (1983) Self Knowledge: An expanded view Journal of Personality, 51 543- 562

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