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When you raise your hand to show you are present, how do you know you really did it, Harvard University psychology professor Daniel M. Wegner, PhD, asked the crowd at a session on defining "authorship," or the sense of controlling our own actions, at APA's 2003 Annual Convention.

Understanding the mental processes involved in authorship, Wegner said, may help researchers better understand authorship confusion and how people sometimes lose control of their actions, such as in hypnosis, voodoo and possession by "spirits."

"One of the things that tells us that we did things is that we have the thought of doing it, just before we do it," Wegner said. "You may think 'I thought of doing it in advance and then I found myself doing it, so I must be the one who did it.'" However, intent alone is not a good indicator, Wegner argued.

Here's why: Because thoughts and actions are so commonly intertwined, people often believe their thoughts cause an action, but, quite possibly, a third variable involving other mental processes might trigger these actions. Examples include unconscious thoughts or unconscious thoughts specific to the action, Wegner said.

"The only thing that pops into consciousness are the thoughts and action, and by virtue of that, we have been experiencing this sense that our thoughts cause our actions--we feel that we will what we do," Wegner said.

Exploring authorship confusion

The mental processes that trigger our actions may be more complex, though. Wegner cited several examples of authorship confusion, such as when people "zone out" in the middle of driving or performing other activities. In such cases, they may feel like an action is being done to them, instead of them doing it, he noted. Similarly, people who are hypnotized or engaging in spiritual or occult-related ceremonies often feel that they are not determining--and are also not responsible for--their actions.

A notable example of this, Wegner said, is table-turning, in which people sit around a table to call up spirits. When the table moves, people often believe spirits are responsible, when, in fact, they are turning the table themselves.

To test such authorship confusion, Wegner and Emily Pronin, PhD, conducted an experiment to determine whether people believe they can will harm on others through voodoo--a belief in supernatural powers and evil spirits.

In his study, participants played a "witch doctor" and were instructed to stick pins in a voodoo doll in the presence of another person who played a "victim." Victims were instructed to arrive late to the experiment and behave impolitely to cause the witch doctors to dislike them. After the voodoo ceremony, the victims feigned a headache.

As a result, the witch doctors often claimed authorship of the victims' headaches. "Apparently having evil thoughts about a person makes it more likely that we will feel responsible for harm to that person," Wegner said.

Wegner said the findings extend to people's reactions in more common, everyday situations. For example, people often feel guilty if they think bad thoughts about a person just before something bad happens to that person, he said. Similarly, when someone hopes for the best and it actually works out that way, the person often feels a sense of authorship over those actions.

"When we feel we did something, maybe that feeling is a construction or an illusion," Wegner said. "All we have to do to experience a bit of authorship is to think about an event before it happens."