The constraints of agency: Your neighbor and your neighborhood

AdamFaccountability, Mormon 8 Comments

Albert Bandura defines agency is “the capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life.”  We have freedom to make choices, and we are responsible for (the agent of) what we choose. Exactly how responsible are we for our actions? What influences to make decisions? Home life? Community influences? Abuse? Emotionally dismissive parenting? An unfortunate genetic tendency? Are we always (or ever) 100% responsible?

Bandura explains how these external forces influence us and our agency: “Personal agency operates within a network of sociostructural influences. In these agentic transactions, people are producers as well as products of social systems.” He adds that while some psychologists in the past have viewed behavior as being automatically controlled by the environment, a more accurate view combines environmental influence, and “agentic action” in one’s environment. This seems more in line with the gospel.

Our environments (and the choices of people around us) make certain values, abilities, or even personal choices more or less likely. For example, I am currently training in a method of family therapy with adolescent and adult offenders (usually at least one family member is on probation) and their families. One of our first major goals with a family is to reduce blame by creating a “family focus” on the problem, rather than assigning blame to individual members (which they’re all SO good at). The relational patterns of interaction in the family make certain behaviors (e.g. punching the principal, or trafficking cocaine) more likely to occur. (As an aside–the therapy works. About half of these adolescents have a huge drop in recidivism. Those who do re-offend usually commit less crimes, which are less severe.)

I have talked many people who seem to use the concept of agency as a way to write other people off. “Well, that kid may have had a hard life, but he is responsible for his actions.” Well, kind of. Yes, we are responsible for our actions, but when we evaluate ourselves and (hopefully not too much) others, we need to be mindful of myriad other factors that are involved.

The “True to the Faith” booklet says: “You are responsible for the decisions you make. You should not blame your circumstances, your family, or your friends if you choose to disobey God’s commandments. You have the ability to choose righteousness and happiness, regardless of your circumstances.” I completely agree – blaming others is not useful. At the same time, I have seen people use this doctrine of not blaming others as a way to blame others. For example, one spouse said about the other (I’m paraphrasing here), “she CHOOSES to be upset and angry and to be afraid and to withdraw from me, so there’s nothing I can do about it.” Of course, she chooses, but he did not realize the powerful influence he was having on her that would make it more likely that she would feel these negative emotions. In other words, when we dismiss others due to their poor choices, we often are blaming them.

Let us not blame others for our actions, and let us not blame others 100% for their actions either. We don’t know what forces have influenced their lives. Many of us also need to stop blaming ourselves for what happens in our lives. In therapy, this is often just as big of a problem as always blaming others.

So, to what extent are we accountable?

“That every many may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” – D&C 101

I think our “own sins” refers to our individual agency. We will NOT be accountable for the choices our neighbors, friends, parents, family, or community make. Those choices still affect our agency a great deal though. Bandura refers to the choices of others that have control over our lives as “proxy” agency. Some things that come to mind here are the choices of Adam and Eve, baptism for the dead (by proxy), and choices of our parents, spouses, or even church leaders in some cases. We rely on many people to make things happen for us. We are also responsible to make things happen for others. The Atonement is the best example of proxy agency. We cannot overcome the effects of sin and death. We are not agents in this sense. We have to rely on the agency of a Savior.

The other form is “collective” agency. We rely on the community at large to make certain things happen. For example, I do not have the agency to make my graduation happen all by myself. I am only responsible (read: agentic) for what I have control over. I have to try to get others (e.g. advisors, administrators, etc.) to use their agency in my behalf. The church (or even a ward) as a whole is another example of how collective agency is used. What we achieve as a church is “the product not only of the shared intentions, knowledge, and skills” of the members, “but also of the interactive, coordinated, and synergistic dynamics” of our interactions.

Another observation I had on this topic was that I think many of us give up our agency by shunning responsibility. I have seen some people put everything on God in terms of big choices in their lives, while not using their own intellect in the process. In a sense, by ascribing things 100% to God, one is in a sense blaming (read: attributing responsibility) God for what happens, whether good or bad. I think following leaders blindly without thought and prayer is another way we give up our agency. We have a mind and a heart, and God wants us to use both of them. Don’t confuse trusting God with putting the responsibility on him. Perhaps we do this because it is easier or more comfortable to surrender our responsibility.

In sum, we don’t have the ability to choose anything, in every situation. Often we must rely on others to exercise their agency in our behalf. That is why the choices we make that affect others are SO important. If one should get married, and when. Deciding if and when to have children. How we parent our children. If and how we help the poor and the needy. Whether or not we indulge in whatever our favorite sin may be.

May we have the courage to be accurate in taking responsibility for our choices, and understanding of others who may not have been dealt the same cards in life that we have.

Reference: Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.

Comments 8

  1. We are also the keepers of our community and the church. Our actions influence the community as a whole. Even on a small scale, I believe our individual acts of aggression or anger influence the community and even the nation. We all contribute to wars, even though it may be very small.

  2. Adam F.:

    I agree, but the feedback loops are enormously complex, and actions we take believing they will produce a motion toward some goal can end up producing actions in the opposite direction. It’s an old saw, but true: the road to hell is often paved with good intentions..

  3. Adam-
    I’m sad your post hasn’t generated more discussion. What an awesome post, and one that ought to be given regularly in sacrament meetings across the church!

    I have spent a good part of my life pushing against the idea that we are insular agents making choices in the vacuum of life. I think part of the issue comes from our conservative mentality. The conservative political movement in this country favors personal responsibility and pushes against the idea of entitlement and/or collective welfare. I think these ideas “leak” over into our religious behavior and get construed to mean something else.

    For me, I try to separate my worlds a bit. In the real world we have to walk a fine line between assigning responsibility for a crime to an individual and assigning responsibility to those influencing the individual. But in the spiritual world I think we ought to be much more compassionate and understand the coercive nature of our culture. For me, this is why I push very very hard against the idea of abdicating one’s agency to some authority, even a prophet.

    Great post!

  4. I’m late to the discussion, but I want to comment on that quote form the True to the Faith booklet (which in the Mormon Hierarchy of “reliably authoritative” should rank fairly high).

    Real life–and the scriptures–prove that we are often at least partially responsible for the choices of those around us. Look at the concept of stewardship, essentially receiving revelation for others. Jacob (1:19) makes it even clearer that if others make poor choices because we fail in our duties, “their blood would come upon our garments.” Likewise, when those within our stewardship excel, we can take justafiable pride in helping them along to their accomplishments.

    I’m not a professional, but while I agree with the TTTF quote, I think it’s way too simplistic to say that our circumstances have no bearing on the choices we make.

  5. jmb – thanks. 🙂 I’m glad some have found it useful.

    While blaming others entirely for their problems is a problem, I also think taking full responsibility for our own problems or choices is also a “way out” of sorts. I’ve seen it a lot in therapy – sure, some tend to blame everyone else, and that is a problem. But others have the same problem on the other extreme – they blame themselves for everything. This stance often causes just as many problems. It’s understandable, given that it is easier to ascribe unfortunate events to oneself rather than face the cold reality that one has less control than one would like.. but still a problem. In family therapy, I try to take those who blame others and move the responsibility back onto them a bit. For those who blame themselves, I have to try to help them move that blame out a bit, even though it can be quite difficult and even scary for some to do so…

    Clark – Agreed. Taken by itself the quote is kind of on the one extreme end of things. Perhaps more accurate would be, “you are in many ways responsible for parts of what happen in your life. Some of the responsibility for the things that happen in your life is shared by others and the community. Let us all work together on what we can influence, and remember that we ARE the keepers of our brothers and sisters, and the community as a whole. Your choices will affect others, just as theirs affect you.”

  6. I like Bandura’s definition. Thanks! Sure need to remember this as I watch all sorts of behavior in the NYC subways.

  7. Post

    A place like that is perfect for watching how our collective agency impacts us, and how we in turn influence it. We all act differently in different settings. Reminds me of Japan, and how outwardly polite people are, careful not to get in your face and etc., but when you got to the train station, it was an entirely different culture… especially in bigger cities. All of a sudden your personal space is gone, haha.

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