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Volition or will is the cognitive process by which an individual decides on and commits to a particular course of action. It is defined as purposive striving and is one of the primary human psychological functions. Others include affection (affect or feeling), motivation (goals and expectations), and cognition (thinking). Volitional processes can be applied consciously or they can be automatized as habits over time.

Most modern conceptions of volition address it as a process of conscious action control which becomes automatized (e.g. see Heckhausen and Kuhl; Gollwitzer; Boekaerts and Corno).



Willpower and volition are colloquial and scientific terms (respectively) for the same process. When a person makes up his or her mind to do a thing, that state is called an immanent volition. When we put forth any particular act of choice, that act is called an emanant, executive, or imperative volition. When an immanent or settled state of choice controls or governs a series of actions, we call that state a predominant volition. Subordinate volitions are particular acts of choice which carry into effect the object sought for by the governing or predominant volition.

According to Gary Kielhofner's "Model of Human Occupation", volition is one of the three sub-systems that act on human behavior. Within this model, volition refers to a person's values, interests and self-efficacy (personal causation) about personal performance.

The book A Bias for Action discusses the difference between willpower and motivation. In doing so, the authors use the term volition as a synonym for willpower and describe briefly the theories of Kurt Lewin. While Lewin argues that motivation and volition are one and the same, the authors claim that Ach argues differently. According to the authors, Ach claims that there is a certain threshold of desire that distinguishes motivation from volition: when desire lies below this threshold, it is motivation, and when it crosses over, it becomes volition. Using this model, the authors consider individuals' differing levels of commitment with regard to tasks by measuring it on a scale of intent from motivation to volition. Modern writing on the role of volition, including discussions of impulse control (e.g., Kuhl and Heckhausen) and education (e.g., Corno), also make this distinction. Corno's model ties volition to the processes of self-regulated learning.


In their research study The Role of Volition in Distance Education: An Exploration of its Capacities, Deimann and Bastiaens (2010), attempt to apply the concept of volition research to distance education (DE) research and practice. They argue that the concept of volition, volition competence, and use of volitional strategies have direct application to the field of DE. The ability to stay focused and ward off distractions otherwise known as volition is a skill set required by DE learners to be successful in knowledge acquisition.


Conceptions of willpower are generally based on the assumption that we have rational control, and that the reduction of this control results in a lack of willpower. We can thus turn our rationality to serve our impulses or wishes, and sometimes have great willpower in pursuing them. For instance, an alcoholic can be very cunning in pursuing his desire to drink, and may display great determination in achieving this goal. Other times, however, he may know that this behavior is destroying his or her life, and may resolve for the moment to forgo it. Both resolutions may be explained with reference to willpower, depending on how rational his choices are in each case.

The observer's error is to assume that humans are essentially rational creatures and that human will always serves that rationality. In fact, we are only partly rational, and often our will serves various motivations aside from reason.