Sense of Agency

Ever heard the term “sense of agency” before? I listen to podcasts when I’m driving alone, and one of them mentioned the term recently, in relation to designing computer games. In this context, it’s described as “the degree to which people attribute their circumstances and the outcomes they experience to being within their own control,” and if your choices don’t seem to affect the outcome of the game’s scene, your sense of agency and your enjoyment really drop. It becomes nothing more than a boring and mechanical plod where someone else is calling the shots.

This struck a chord with me. In my youth, I learned very quickly to avoid boredom at all costs, because boredom always spiraled very quickly into depression. I never figured out why I was getting bored all the time though — never even thought to ask. It was just the way it was, the way I was. But in light of this concept of a sense of agency, the reason is pretty obvious: I had no real control over my life.

Choice? You could eat what was put on your plate, or you could go hungry (a sentiment we were told whenever we asked for something different for dinner). You could do your homework, or you could be punished. You could go where you were told and do what you were instructed to, or you could suffer the consequences. Everything was “do this or else,” there was never an option to do something different, something that you wanted to do. No sense of agency equals boredom which soon equals depression.

I’ve heard that baby elephants in captivity are chained to a heavy stake set solidly into the ground. They pull and strain, but can’t get away from it. Over time, this is reduced to the token of a light rope and a short wooden stake, because they won’t even try to get away from it anymore. Their circumstances have changed; they’re a lot bigger and more capable now than when they first learned that they couldn’t fight it, and the thing holding them is now so flimsy that even a determined human toddler could pull it up, but they’re still held captive — solely because they believe that they are.

On reaching adulthood, there were thousands of choices available to me, but I couldn’t see any of them. It was nearly ten years later that I realized that my most common feeling had a name — it was called depression, and could be treated. To me, it was merely life.

But even then, if I didn’t have a project that absorbed my attention, it was still boredom and depression — a much lighter depression, which lasted a few weeks at a time instead of five or six months, but still depression. To me, that was such a huge improvement that I thought it was great, and didn’t realize that it still wasn’t normal.

(I never understood why people swore by setting and achiveing goals. I tried it… achieving a goal provided a kind of “high,” but it was a short-lived one. The harder the goal, and the more effort required to achive it, the better and longer the feeling was — but even the best lasted less than two weeks, and most only a day or two. Those readers who know me in “meatspace” might recognize the original impetus for my Project X in those words… I subconsciously thought it would provide a lasting improvement to my mood, and it would definitely keep me busy for decades. But expending so much energy for such a fleeting reward was hardly worth the effort. I’m not giving up on Project X; it’s even more important to me now, but for different reasons.)

Since learning the term, I’ve had such a sense of freedom… I’ve been released from the prison of my mind, and I can do anything I want to! If I wanted to take up skydiving or scuba, or learn to drive racecars, or spend a couple weeks in Bermuda, or Honalulu, or Africa, I could! I wouldn’t, because none of that appeals to me, but I could if I wished. That’s such a remarkable discovery that I’m still in shock over it.

This has been a major revelation, and I can tell that it will change my life immensely, but I can’t tell exactly how yet. It should be very interesting to see.


  1. I know exactly what you mean. I’ve had times where I’ve had that realization, but then find myself slipping back into performing rote actions and forgetting that I really do have a choice. It’s easy get overwhelmed and go into survival mode, but it’s worth the fight to see beyond the illusionary walls.

    • I knew others had to have run into that problem too, but I never imagined you were one of them. Thanks, it helps to know that.

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