Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Action identification theory

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Action identification theory
What is it and how can it be applied?

Overview[edit | edit source]

If you were to be asked, "What are you doing right now?", what would your response be? Reading a book? Learning about ways to improve your motivational life? Killing some time? Looking at a screen? As individuals, we all have different ways of identifying the same act of reading a book (see Figure 1.), and this applies to virtually all identifiable actions (Mange, Senemeaud and Michinov, 2013).

Figure 1. A person reading a book.

This realm of possibility with regards to action identification is the basis of the theory by the same name. Action Identification Theory (AIT) posits that while there are a variety of possible identifications for a particular action, they can be consistently organised into a hierarchy of lower versus higher level identities (Vallacher & Wenger, 1987). Despite there being many different interpretations of an action, people are able to know what they have done, what they are doing and what they intend to do. How this occurs is also a focus of AIT, which provides an understanding of why people are motivated to perform certain actions as it relates to the identit(ies)[grammar?] that they give to them.

Focus questions:

  • What is Action Identification Theory?
  • What are the Levels of Identification?
  • What are the three Principles of Action Identification Theory?
  • What are some potential applications of Action Identification Theory?

What is AIT?[edit | edit source]

Humans are attuned to actions and are able to easily and quickly identify them on the basis of minimal motion cues (Kozak, Marsh & Wegner, 2006). AIT provides a connection between the little things we do and the larger meanings we have in mind. The theory extends to topics beyond mental control to personality, self-concept, social influence and conflict resolution. It was influenced by several other theories from the time, such as cybernetic models of action and unitization in behaviour perception. The fundamental question of: 'What is an action?' can be identified in many ways (Vallacher & Wegner, 2012).

Example 1

Driving to work can be identified as: operating a vehicle, moving through the city, attending work, or performing a routine.

The ambiguity of action interpretation is the basis of this theory, which strives to understand the relationship between mind and action.

Levels of identification[edit | edit source]

The mind is designed to identify or create patterns in the world, and actions accumulate meaning because we impose patterns on specific behaviours (Vallacher & Wegner, 2012). The way to find a consistent metric by which to judge action identification is by viewing the identities in a hierarchal manner. Whether a particular identity is considered high or low depends on the identity with which it is compared against (Vallacher & Wegner, 1989).

A is higher if A is achieved by doing B.

Lower-level identification[edit | edit source]

Lower-level identities in the hierarchy specify how the action is performed (McIntyre et al., 2004). This includes the details and specifics of an action, which are generally attributable to motor skills (Vallacher & Wegner, 2012). Additionally, low-level identifiers have been found to have less flexibility and higher impulsivity.

Higher-level identification[edit | edit source]

Higher-level actions can be performed by doing a lower-level action, but not vice-versa (McIntyre et al., 2004). This is how the identities are defined; if one action leads to the completion of another, the latter is a higher-level identity and the former is lower. Lower-level identification is specific but the higher-levels provide an overview of the action: why, what its implications are. In essence, the higher levels provide meaning to the behaviour.

Case Study 1

Jacob Speil is a 28 year old man who drives his car to work. In the morning he wakes up, gets out of bed, brushes his teeth, takes a shower, changes into his work clothes, makes himself breakfast, eats breakfast, gets into his car, takes the shortest route to his workplace for a large pharmaceutical company, parks his car, works all day, then drives his car back home.

Jacob Speil is a 28 year old man who drives his car to work. He values following a routine, as it is a healthy and essential practice for achieving efficiency. He works for a large pharmaceutical company where he hopes to work hard enough to one day buy his mother a house. He diligently attends work every day and works hard to secure his future.

Which of these two identifications of Jacob's day is low-level and which is high-level?

Level-indeterminate[edit | edit source]

Some act identities are not hierarchal and therefore have a level-indeterminate relation to one another. For example, "being rude" and "being constructive" are both higher-level identities for "criticising someone", however they do not share an obvious hierarchal relationship. Factor analysis helps to narrow down the different identities into manageable hierarchies based on the strength of loadings for each identity (Vallacher & Wegner, 2012).

Example 2

A cricket player may be playing a match of cricket in order to "demonstrate his cricket prowess". Upon performing poorly as a batsman, he might change the identity to a lower, "demonstrating his bowling prowess", and upon performing poorly in his first over as a bowler, he may move to an even lower-level identity of "pitching the ball in line with the wicket". After successfully completing an over, he may once again move to the higher-level identity of "demonstrating his bowling prowess", and after further successes, eventually to "demonstrating his cricket prowess".

Theoretical principles[edit | edit source]

After understanding that actions can have multiple hierarchal identities, the natural query is, how do individuals pick one level over another to identify their current, past and future actions? Additionally, once an action is identified, what factors influence its maintenance, or alternatively, its re-identification?

To answer these core questions and others, Vallacher and Wegner (2012) proposed three theoretical principles which moderate these identifications:

Table 1.

The three theoretical principles of Action Identification Theory.

No. Principle
One Action is maintained with respect to its prepotent identity
Two When both a lower- and a higher-level act identity are available, there is a tendency for the higher-level identity to become prepotent
Three When an action cannot be performed in terms of its prepotent identity, there is a tendency for a lower level identity to become prepotent

Principle One[edit | edit source]

Principle One states that the prepotent identity, or the prominent identity, dictates the maintenance of the action. This means that the identity provides a frame of reference for performing the action, a criterion to assess how well the action has been performed, and functions as an intention to initiate an action. This makes the prepotent identity wholly responsible for all aspects of the action, and because actions can be identified at different levels, the implication is that people can maintain action at different levels.[factual?][for example?]

The key word for Principle 1 is Governance, because the prepotent identity governs all other aspects of the action.

Principle Two[edit | edit source]

Principle Two states that when there is an option between a lower- and a higher-level act identity, people tend to make the higher-level identity prepotent. This principle essentially argues that people tend to apply broader effects and meanings to their actions, which is an idea that has been suggested before by different schools of thought such as Gestalt psychology. This principle enables people to adopt one of many plausible identities, which in turn motivates them to take action. Without the ability to distinguish and choose, people would waste their time entertaining a multitude of different possible identities in a given situation.[factual?][for example?]

The key word for Principle 2 is Efficiency. Principle 2 allows for efficiency by reducing the time spent negotiating the identity of an action.

Principle Three[edit | edit source]

Principle Three in effect adds a "disclaimer" to Principle 2. If Principle 2 was the only basis for action identification, people would successively pick higher-level identities until their minds were populated by fantasies, hopes and fears. Rudimentary acts would hold disproportionate amounts of meaning, leading to increased mental stress. This is why Principle 3 is essential, as it provides a caveat for when the action cannot be performed in terms of it's prepotent identity. In this case, there is a tendency for a lower-level identity to become prepotent. This allows for fluid movement between the levels when the prepotent identity isn't feasible.[factual?][for example?]

The key word for Principle 3 is Disclaimer, as it provides an alternative to the principle that the higher-level identity is always chosen over a lower-level identity.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Which of the following is the key word for Principle 3?


2 Which of the following is the key word for Principle 2?


3 Janet likes to spend money. She particularly enjoys buying trinkets from the antique store, however her mum simply sees it as wasting money. Which identification is higher?

Enjoys buying trinkets
Sees it as wasting money

Emergence of new action[edit | edit source]

In the context of the three principles, one conclusion becomes clear: Low-level identification occurs out of necessity, and is a relatively unstable state, as one is expected to return to a higher-level identity once it is feasible to do so. When the processes interact with one another in accordance with the three principles, there is also a possibility of an emergence of new action. This possibility exists in relation to low-level identities, as this state is the most unstable. After moving to a low-level identity, there is a possibility of being exposed to new high-level meanings for their behaviour, or new high-level identities. In essence, there is potential for one lower-level identity to have many different high-level identities, which can be explored upon moving to a low-level identity and reevaluating the context of the action. This disruption may lead to a higher-level identity that is significantly different than the high-level identity with which the person began their action. If it is significantly different, there is a possibility of setting an entirely different action into motion. However, emergence of new action is unlikely to occur if the person is able to maintain action at a high level, because they will not find the need to move to a lower-level identity, which is where the change from one identity to another happens (Wegner & Vallacher, 1984).[for example?]

Applications of AIT[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Behavior modification form[edit | edit source]

The Behavior Identification Form (BIF) was created by Vallacher and Wegner to test a variable titled "levels of personal agency", where high-level agents tend to view their actions in more abstract terms, and low-level agents tend to view their actions in more defined and specific terms (Vallacher & Wegner, 1989). Studies utilising the BIF attempt to answer questions about topics ranging from education to addiction. Three of the prominent domains of study will be discussed here: perception, performance, and Optimal Identification.

Perception[edit | edit source]

The interactions between AIT and perception have been observed in a number of recent studies, as well as some dated ones. A 2015 study explored the role of the level of identification of pain in chronic pain patients' meaning in life (Robinson & Morley, 2015). Despite being limited by a reliable-but-novel measure for the identification of pain as well as a small sample size of 47, the results showed that higher-level identification of pain was related to greater meaning in life[Provide more detail]. This suggests that adopting a more abstract perspective when dealing with obstacles in life could be an effective way of maintaining or enhancing meaning of life and therefore significance of existence (see Steger, 2009). AIT could also give meaning to differences in actions across cultures. A 2013 study found that at the individual level, Americans were more likely than Japanese to identify the goal (high-level) as opposed to the process (low-level) of the action (Miyamoto et al., 2013). A follow-up study found that cultural differences pervade to a collective level; American media presents more goal-oriented information as opposed to process-oriented information than Japanese media (Miyamoto et al., 2013). While repeat studies are essential to providing a concrete conclusion, findings like this show that patterns of perception of action may have a cultural mediation, providing advantages and disadvantages to the individual in different professional domains in life. This is because different domains, as evidenced by a study that investigated the identification level of 237 students of different academic majors, have different levels of identification. High-levels of personal agency (measured by BIF) is associated with majors that emphasise distal consequences such as nursing with the emphasis on well-being of patient, and low-levels seem to be associated with majors that de-emphasise distal consequences such as mathematics majors who focus on procedural processes (Bishop & Thomas, 2000). The implication that cultural differences in perception may indirectly influence professional competence is an important one, however, in a more direct approach to perception, a 2009 study by Libby, Shaeffer and Eibach found that picturing actions from a 3rd person perspective causes people to represent actions more abstractly, and representing actions more abstractly causes people to see them from the third-person perspective. While a follow up study found a unidirectional as opposed to the bidirectional causal relationship found by Libby and colleagues (Hart-Smith & Moulds, 2019), the finding that changing visual perspective has an effect on identification level is a significant one.

Performance[edit | edit source]

Action identification and its association with performance is a considerably important interaction, as well as a major focus of the applicational literature. One interesting application was undertaken in the context of video games. Using a modified version of the BIF, the researchers found [how?] that those who thought of their in-game actions in high-level terms performed better compared to those who viewed the actions more concretely (Ewell, Hamilton and Guadagno, 2018). While the generalisability of this finding is limited to video game related applications, and the measure was novel, there are other studies which favour high- over low-level identification when it comes to performance. An example of this is the pilot study undertaken by Vallacher and Wenger to test the psychometric properties of the BIF (1989). In addition to finding excellent reliability and validity for the measure, the study also found [how?] that in it's robust sample of 1,404 subjects, low-level agents agents reported greater impulsiveness and lower stability in behaviour as well as low self-motivation (Vallacher & Wegner, 1989), suggesting that they persist less in behaviour when faced with opposing goals which are pronounced by action context. The result of this is that overall performance is lowered due to lowered consistency and persistence. This finding is mirrored by studies on the treatment of habits, which characterise disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (Belyachi & Van der Linden, 2017) and substance addiction. A 2017 review of obsessive-compulsive checking studies found that low-level identification leads to behavioural dysregulation (e.g. repetition, doubts about completion), and checking proneness is related to low-level identification (Belyachi & Van der Linden, 2017). The idea that low-level identification has negative effects on performance, therefore, appears to be well evidenced, however there are exceptions to these findings. One such exception was found in a study examining alcohol addiction. The researchers found [how?] that high-level identification is less effective than low-level identification at reducing habit behaviour (Schellhas et al., 2016). The researchers hypothesised that this may be due to the fact that it is essential to monitor problem behaviours when attempting to reduce them, and monitoring is the essence of low-level identification. Where high-level identification tempts rationalisation and compromise, low-level identification disallows the consideration of these things. While these findings must primarily be considered in the context of problematic alcohol consumption, they have potential to be extrapolated to other habitual behaviours.

Optimal identification[edit | edit source]

The concept of optimal identification was hypothesised as a natural response to the understanding that low-level identification is an unstable state, and movement between levels is a natural and adaptive process (Vallacher & Wegner, 1984). With regards to an action, there is an optimal level of identification that is reached as a compromise between an unteneble[spelling?] high-level identity and a mastered low-level identity, and this is the optimal level of identification for that behaviour (Vallacher & Wegner, 2012)[for example?]. This understanding is essential to applying AIT to our motivational lives, as it directly calls for compromise between levels, as opposed to monitored continual movement between levels, which can be exhausting and demotivating[factual?]. The importance of proper application of AIT was voiced by Johnson and Scott in their article focusing on "learning agility". They proposed that AIT principles are at the core of improving learning agility (the ability to quickly understand a situation and move across ideas flexibly), as there needs to be an understanding not just of what the problem is, but how to apply previous contextual experience to solving it (Johnson & Scott, 2012). This means that understanding optimal identification is essential to improving learning agility, as the optimal level reflects a compromise between previous concerns for comprehensive understanding of the action (high-level) and knowing how to effectively maintain the action (low-level) (Dickerson, 1995). Another article that refers to the importance of experience is by Michaels, Parkin and Wegner (2013). While they stress the importance of time and experience in finding the optimal level, they also stress that identification is a dynamic process, not a static one (Michaels, Parkin and Wegner, 2013). This means that when applying prior experiences to present problems, it is important to use the optimal level as the starting point to having a dynamic movement between the levels.[for example?]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

AIT is a cognitive model that functions on the basis that an action has multiple identities, that these identities can be arranged into a relative hierarchy for any given action, and that the movement between them is dictated by three interactive principles. The interaction between these principles has the potential to lead to an emergence of new action due to an inherent instability in the low-level identities. The three identities can be easily remembered with the words Governance, Efficiency, and Disclaimer respectively. The application of the theory varies in the {{what} literature, with the main realms of focus being perception, performance and optimal identification. Perception appears to have a strong, sometimes causal relationship with action-identification. High-level identification is favoured when it comes to perception as it can lead to increased perceived meaning of life. Action identification is also mediated by culture, where from an individual to a collectivist level, there is evidence of cultural influence on differences in high- versus low-level identification. These cultural differences have the potential to provide indirect advantages or disadvantages in a professional context. While the majority of the application on performance suggests that high-level identification is preferable, there is evidence of the contextual role of low-level identification as demonstrated by studies on problematic habits. Optimal identification is the compromise between low- and high-level identities which is essential to applying AIT in practical settings. Experience is an important factor in applying the theory, and this experience is further enhanced with the understanding of the contextual optimal identification level.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Belayachi, S., & Linden, M. V. (2017). The Cognitive Heterogeneity of Obsessive-Compulsive Checking. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 16(1), 9-22. doi:

Bishop DI, Thomas RW, Peper BM. Levels of Personal Agency among Academic Majors. Psychological Reports. 2000;86(1):221-224. doi:

Dickerson AE. Action Identification May Explain Why the Doing of Activities in Occupational Therapy Effects Positive Changes in Clients. British Journal of Occupational Therapy. 1995;58(11):461-464. doi:

Ewell, Patrick & Hamilton, James & Guadagno, Rosanna. (2018). How do videogame players identify their actions? Integrating Action Identification Theory and videogame play via the Behavior Identification Form-Gamer. Computers in Human Behavior. 81. 10.1016/j.chb.2017.12.019.

Fointiat V, Pelt A. Do I Know What I'm Doing? Cognitive Dissonance and Action Identification Theory. Span J Psychol. 2015 Nov 27;18:E97. doi:

Gray K. How to Map Theory: Reliable Methods Are Fruitless Without Rigorous Theory. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2017;12(5):731-741. doi:

Hart-Smith L, Moulds ML. Abstract processing and observer vantage perspective in dysphoria. J Exp Psychol Appl. 2019 Jun;25(2):177-191. doi:

Johnson, R., & Scott, B. (2012). Learning Agility Requires Proper Action Identification. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 5(3), 309-312. doi:

Libby, L. K., Shaeffer, E. M., & Eibach, R. P. (2009). Seeing meaning in action: A bidirectional link between visual perspective and action identification level. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138(4), 503–516.

Mange, J., Sénémeaud, C., & Michinov, N. (2013). Jotting down notes or preparing for the future? Action identification and academic performance. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 16(1), 151–164.

Michaels, J. L., Parkin, S. S., & Vallacher, R. R. (2013). Destiny is in the details: Action identification in the construction and destruction of meaning. In J. A. Hicks & C. Routledge (Eds.), The experience of meaning in life: Classical perspectives, emerging themes, and controversies (p. 103–115). Springer Science + Business Media.

Miyamoto Y, Knoepfler CA, Ishii K, Ji LJ. Cultural variation in the focus on goals versus processes of actions. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2013 Jun;39(6):707-19. doi:

Robinson, Helen & Morley, Stephen. (2013). Action Identification and Meaning in Life in Chronic Pain. Unpublished manuscript for comment. doi:

Schellhas, Laura & Ostafin, Brian & Palfai, Tibor & Jong, Peter. (2016). How to think about your drink: Action-identification mediates the relation between mindfulness and dyscontrolled drinking. Addictive Behaviors. 56. doi:

Steger, M. F. (2009). Meaning in life. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. Oxford handbook of positive psychology (p. 679–687). Oxford University Press.

Vallacher, R. & Wegner, D. (2012). Action identification theory. In P. A. Van LangeA. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins Handbook of theories of social psychology: volume 1 (Vol. 1, pp. 327-348). London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446249215.n17

Vallacher, R. R., Wegner, D. M., & Frederick, J. (1987). The presentation of self through action identification. Social Cognition, 5(3), 301–322.

Vallacher, Robin & Wegner, Daniel. (1989). Levels of Personal Agency: Individual Variation in Action Identification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 57. 660-671.

Wegner, D. M., Vallacher, R. R., Macomber, G., Wood, R., & Arps, K. (1984). The emergence of action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(2), 269–279.

External links[edit | edit source]