All of us have, to some or a large extent, personal agency.
This is the degree to which we are able to make decisions and carry out actions that we choose for ourselves. The extent to which we can notice, and claim this personal agency is indicative of maturity. The less personal agency we claim, and operate from, the more we will believe we are at the whim of others or events outside of us, and the less responsibility we will believe we have. Personal agency is personal responsibility for who we are, what we experience, what we do about that experience, and how we shape our world to give us more of the experiences we want.
Personal agency can include our beliefs, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, preferences, choices, values, attitude, behaviour and anything which is going on within our minds and what we do with our bodies.
To claim personal agency is to claim responsibility for our choices, our actions, our words, and our reactions or responses to others and to events.
There are times when we can exaggerate our sense of personal agency, however, to our own detriment. Someone gambling may act as if they are affecting the role of the dice by how hard they roll the dice. Studies have shown this to be the case (Moore J. W. (2016). What Is the Sense of Agency and Why Does it Matter?. In Frontiers in psychology).
Personal agency is related to self-efficacy, defined as: Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our own abilities, specifically our ability to meet the challenges ahead of us and complete a task successfully (Akhtar, 2008, What is self-efficacy? Bandura’s 4 sources of efficacy beliefs, in Positive Psychology UK).
Reducing distractions and making choices about what comes into your mind and preoccupies you helps to increase personal agency. Being tied to your mobile phone and all the notifications is not personal agency, and doing this will extract a price in terms of your feelings of personal empowerment.
The more we believe we have self-efficacy, the greater our performance will be. We shape, by what we take responsibility for, the outcomes of what we do. Of course, this is not guaranteed, and despite our own personal agency, things go wrong. It is a functional and useful generalisation, however, to act from.
Albert Bandura (1990) in the article entitled Perceived self-efficacy in the exercise of personal agency, in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, shared how children who thought they had self-efficacy performed better than children who did not. The skill level may have even be the same, yet the underperformer was the child who did not believe they had self-efficacy.
The more self-worth we have, the greater we can access our own personal agency, as our self-worth will determine what we’re prepared to believe about what is possible for us.
Self-efficacy is also related with our locus of control. We either have an internal, or external, locus of control. Locus of control is where we believe the power to alter events in our lives resides. If we perceive we can shape events, then we have an internal locus of control. If we believe events shape us, then we have an external locus of control. As an aside, try working with someone who’s locus of control is all external, and face a crisis.
If our thoughts when things go badly are… I couldn’t do anything… It wasn’t my fault… It’s because they… It’s because men all… It’s because all employers are users… then that would indicate an external locus of control. This person has a lack of belief in their own ability to shape events, or impact them. Their own powerlessness sets them up for the next setback.
With an internal locus of control, someone is going to be quick to own mistakes, be aware of how they impacted an event, see how patterns of behaviour within them shape what happens ‘out there’, and be prepared to do something about it.
On the flipside of agency, there is structure. Structure in this context is the environment we find ourselves in, and the forces outside of us which impact, influence, shape and limit our personal agency. Structure is the stuff of the outer world. It can include the town we live in, the political situation, the economy, the school we go to, the work that is available, the opportunities available, the legal constraints in place, and the climate.
Structure can exert forces on our choices, and can provide opportunities for our choices.
We can establish structures around us, in our home environment, in our work environment, and in our play, to best serve us so we can have the freedom to make decisions about what we do.
Some environments primarily offer limits for opportunity. Areas that are isolated, or have violence, or are particularly lacking in infrastructure, present less opportunities for personal agency to be as effective. This doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for agency, but someone attempting to demonstrate personal agency will have more challenge having it be effective. There is a difference between expressing a preference for going to university in an area where access to universities is taken for granted, versus in the middle of the Congo.
There is a difference, in many places, for a man to express this interest, versus a woman wanting to go to university.
The Balance Between Agency and Structure
Structure impacts all of us, all of the time, in different ways. Laws impact us and shape our decisions regarding how fast we drive, how we behave in public, and what we will or won’t do. If the weather is particularly bad, a sporting event may be cancelled, and this is beyond our control. A road may be damaged in the same bad weather. A school may be closed for the day. Traffic may be brought to a standstill. These are structural impacts which we cannot control or influence.
Our agency in this example is how we react or respond to these events.
To react is to have our mood, attitude, beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings shaped and determined by the structure we experience.
It is to say that the events of the day determined how we could be. It is to not see any choice but to be impacted emotionally by these experiences.
To respond is to have our mood, attitude, beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings shaped and determined by our own decisions, regardless of the experiences of the day.
It is to say that the events of the day did not determine how we could be. It is to see choice in how we respond to the inevitable challenges, and to make the choice which gives us the most empowerment.
If someone believes their structure determines all of their choices, and then thinks, feels, perceives, and acts accordingly, they are at one end of the spectrum of quality of decisions.
If someone believes that their structure impacts some of their choices, in some way, but also believes they are a greater force than the structural forces, then they will think, feel, perceive, and act accordingly, with more freedom to make choices and decisions.