Psychology of Consciousness: Vol. 3 No. 2


How do you navigate a rock garden when you hit it for the very first time? How do you make sense of the performance capabilities of a new piece of equipment, or a whole new bike?

Is it enough to know, cognitively, how each component of the new bike functions? Or do we learn things through experience, too: using it, manipulating it, taking it with us as we hit that first rock garden with a cautious, exploratory speed? How do we monitor these things while making quick decisions about obstacles that lie ahead?

“The Sense of Agency and Its Role in Strategic Control for Expert Mountain Bikers” is a collaborative and theoretical response to questions such as these. Philosophers Wayne Christensen and John Sutton,  psychologist, Doris McIlwain, and myself wrote this paper as part of a larger project exploring the relationships between skilled action and cognitive control in sport, music, yoga and dance. It was published as part of a special issue of Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.

I brought case studies from mountain bike racing and equipment testing to the mix; a methodological example of what my own discipline, Performance Studies, would call ‘practice as research’. This is unusual for an audience of philosophers and psychologists, such as the intended readers of this piece. To quote someone at a party recently, ‘We’re still trying to figure out how people perform very basic movements’. By throwing blinged out trail bikes, restless rock gardens and the pressures of an upcoming race into the picture, this interdisciplinary approach to inquiry pushes theoretical understandings of skill, agency and cognitive control into new and exciting territory.

A PDF copy of the peer-reviewed article is here. The abstract is below.

Much work on the sense of agency has focused either on abnormal cases, such as delusions of control, or on simple action tasks in the laboratory. Few studies address the nature of the sense of agency in complex natural settings, or the effect of skill on the sense of agency. Working from 2 case studies of mountain bike riding, we argue that the sense of agency in high-skill individuals incorporates awareness of multiple causal influences on action outcomes. This allows fine-grained differentiation of the contributions of self and external factors to action outcomes. We further argue that the sense of agency incorporates prospective awareness of actions that are possible in a situation and awareness of the limits of control. These forms of sense of agency enable highly flexible, context-sensitive strategic control, and are likely to contribute to high interindividual variability in responses to complex tasks.
Keywords: expertise, prospective awareness, sense of agency, sense of control, skill