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Q: Voluntary vs. involuntary ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   2 Comments )
Subject: Voluntary vs. involuntary
Category: Science > Biology
Asked by: qpet-ga
List Price: $25.00
Posted: 13 Jan 2003 06:48 PST
Expires: 12 Feb 2003 06:48 PST
Question ID: 142014
A short summary outline on the difference between voluntary and involuntary action.
Subject: Re: Voluntary vs. involuntary
Answered By: tisme-ga on 13 Jan 2003 08:35 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello qpet,

I am going to be answering this question assuming you are looking for
differences between voluntary and involuntary action (in movement)
because the question is listed under Science > Biology. There are
other definitions/contexts that these words can have. For example,
Philosophy and Psychology are two other fields having different
definitions for these words.

A voluntary action is something that is done voluntarily, or with
meaning to do so. An involuntary action on the other hand is done
automatically, without a person directly meaning to do the action,
wanting to do the action, or having the ability to stop doing the

I found an article called “Voluntary Action and Conscious Awareness”
written by Patrick Haggard, Sam Clark & Jeri Kalogeras that goes into
great detail involving testing response times of voluntary and
involuntary action. You might be interested in reading through the
article if you need to go deeper into this subject.
“Normal human experience consists of a coherent stream of sensorimotor
events, in which we formulate intentions to act and then move our
bodies to produce a desired effect. Our experiences of voluntary
action arise from several distinct stages of neural activity,
including motor preparation, specification of motor commands and
sensory feedback from actual body movement. The CNS must bind together
these representations to produce coherent experience of our own

The part of the brain that coordinated voluntary movements is the
cerebellum. It does this by fine-tuning commands from the motor cortex
in the cerebrum.
Source: "Brain," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2002 © 1997-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights

An excellent article that includes a walkthrough of a voluntary action
can be found here:
See page 7 for a diagram and page 8 for the complete walkthrough, the
following is just a brief summary.
The highest level (Association cortex and other brain areas) initiates
the motor command, the example that is used is picking up a ball.
“Sensory information is integrated with memory and emotion to initiate
a motor command,” this involves the Association cortedx and the Limbic
system. At the middle level, the high level command that was issued is
“Broken down into a series of smaller motor programs necessary to
complete the desired movement.” As the movement is going on, the
“sensory receptors in the periphery provide the brain […] with
constant information”, and as a result certain adjustments can be
made. At the lowest level of control “involved the brainstem and
spinal cord from which the motor neurons exit.” Here tension is
generated and the angles of specific joins etc. are determined.
Source: Nancy Long Sieber, Ph. D., Muscle Contraction and Control of

A reflex is a type of involuntary action. In the skin are receptors
which react to certain happenings. It is “an involuntary response to a
stimulus by the animal organism. In its simplest form, it consists of
the stimulation of an afferent nerve through a sense organ, or
receptor, followed by transmission of the stimulus, usually through a
nerve center, to an efferent motor nerve, resulting in action of a
muscle or gland, called the effector.” The article goes on to discuss
that the stimulus passes through nerve cells which modify and direct
what is to happen as a result of the action that triggered the reflex.
“If the stimulus is strong, the coordinating nerve cells pass it to
the arm muscles and also to the muscles of the trunk and legs, the
result being a jump […]”
"Reflex," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2002 © 1997-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights

“In the skin are cells of several types called receptors; each is
especially sensitive to particular stimuli. Free nerve endings are
sensitive to pain and are directly activated. The neurons so activated
send impulses into the central nervous system and have junctions with
other cells that have axons extending back into the periphery.
Impulses are carried from processes of these cells to motor endings
within the muscles (see Muscle). These neuromuscular endings excite
the muscles, resulting in muscular contraction and appropriate
movement. The pathway taken by the nerve impulse in mediating this
simple response is in the form of a two-neuron arc that begins and
ends in the periphery.”
"Nervous System," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2002 © 1997-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights

For a visually stunning, easy to understand walkthrough of Movement,
both Voluntary and Involuntary see PDF file:

This article reaffirms that involuntary movements are reflexes, which
are “fixed responses to particular stimulus.” Voluntary movements are
“cognitive controlled movements” that can be corrected through

I hope that this was the type of answer that you were looking for. If
you need any clarifications regarding this answer, feel free to let me
know and I will do my best to further assist you.

Search Strategy:

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"involuntary action" "voluntary action" movement

voluntary involuntary action movement

voluntary science movement OR action

involuntary science movement OR action

Request for Answer Clarification by qpet-ga on 13 Jan 2003 13:40 PST
Hi tisme-ga,
Great answer! I would like to understand vol. vs. invol. in the
context of Philosophy and Psychology as well.(I'd be happy to doubble
your fee, if that works for you)
Until soon,

Clarification of Answer by tisme-ga on 13 Jan 2003 13:54 PST
Hello qpet,

Thank you for your clarification request. I will gladly do further
research for you and get back with an answer for you in a few hours.


Clarification of Answer by tisme-ga on 13 Jan 2003 18:33 PST
Hello, here is the additional research for you as promised:

Voluntary vs. Involuntary Action Continued


In Philosophy, when a person does something deliberately, it is a
voluntary action. Basically if a person plans to rob a bank because
he/she needs money and goes through with it, it is a voluntary action.
The person, of their own free will did rob the bank. The problem
philosophers face however, is differentiating between certain actions,
or classifying certain actions as being voluntary or involuntary.

One way that an involuntary action can be defined is when you
“wouldn’t want to do the action, you do not contribute anything to the
action at all because you are forced or the actions comes from
ignorance, from you not knowing what the action is (giving poison
thinking it is water).” The web page (cited below) goes on to give
some excellent examples:
-“Say you are standing behind somebody who is standing over a cliff,
and someone pushes you. Then your body pushes the victim’s body over
the cliff.” Even though you pushed the person over the cliff, it was
not a voluntary action. It could have been a partial voluntary action
if you had known the person (who was going to push you) was the type
of person who pushes people off cliffs if there is somebody else
standing behind them. Yes that is complicated, but in this case you
would have known that there is a chance that the person behind you
would push you, resulting in the person in front of you falling off
the cliff – (making this a voluntary action).
Philosophy 051-01

The above page is well worth reading through if you are more
interested in this discussion.

Aristotle (the grand philosopher of the past) defines both voluntary
and involuntary actions in this sentence:
"Since, then, what is involuntary is what is forced or is caused by
ignorance, what is voluntary seems to be what has its origin in the
agent himself when he knows the particulars that the action consists
Source: Aristotle on Voluntary Action

From the same page as above, Aristotle takes a look at whether an
action is voluntary or involuntary in a specific manner to check if
they are “subject to praise or blame (rather than pardon or pity).” Or
an action to be involuntary, there has to be either Force or Ignorance

From Rockhurst University in Kansas City, there is an excellent review
of force and ignorance and how they can make an action involuntary.
-Force: If a person is forced to kill somebody else or die themselves,
the aspect of being forced makes it an involuntary action to some.
“Force makes an action involuntary – but not “duress.” Under duress,
we will sometimes choose things that we would not normally choose,
especially if the circumstances were different.” Aristotle goes on to
say (as reviewed by the website cited below), that “However, there are
some actions that we should never do –regardless of force and duress –
acts such as rape or murder [moral absolutes].” This is one opinion,
but it could also be argued that if someone is holding a gun to your
head and ordering you to kill someone else (who may or may not deserve
it more than you) or you yourself will be shot (along with some of
your friends). It could be argued that this makes the action
involuntary, because if you do not kill one person, many other people
(including yourself) will die as a result.
-Ignorance is another variable to be taken into consideration. “An
action caused by ignorance, but which one does not regret or care
about, is called non-voluntary.” The next point goes on to say that
“One who is drunk may not be completely responsible for her or his
actions, but they are at least responsible for getting drunk and
putting themselves in such a condition.”
Source: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Study Guide (Book 3)

You can read the rest of the review of book three if you are
interested, and you might even want to pick up Aristotle’s Nicomachean
Ethics. Aristotle can be a bit difficult to read, but it is worth it
if one is interested in this topic.

Most things studied in the field of philosophy do not have definite
answers. Consider the following which I remember from a philosophy
course that I took:

You are looking down a pit and there are two babies. One is your own
child and the other child belongs to your best friend. You see a
dragon approaching and know that you can only save one baby. If you
decide to save your own baby, (causing the other baby to die), have
you voluntarily or involuntarily killed the other baby? There are many
situations like this over which philosophers argue and write lengthy
papers about.

Here are some other good sources to read if you are interested in this

Aristotle: Ethics and the Virtues

Apethics (discussion relating to this starts about halfway through the

Introduction to Ethics: Topic VII. Euthanasia (not directly related to
this topic, but worth reading if you want a discussion of how these
terms are applied in other philosophical discussions)

Another review of Aristotle: Book three


In psychology the terms attach themselves to behavior and learning.
“According to the behaviorists, learning can be defined as the
relatively permanent change in behavior brought about as a result of
experience or practice.” (From Valdosta State University)
“Educational Psychology Interactive: The Behavioral System”

Of the four types of behaviorist learning theories, the two we are
interested in are Classical (Respondent) Conditioning which is “an
association of stimuli (an antecedent stimulus will reflexivetly
elicit an innate emotional or physiological response; another stimulus
will elicit an orienting response).” This definition (and some of the
terms defined) can be found on the page above. The key word for our
purpose is ‘reflexive’ or involuntary… a response that cannot be
consciously stopped once it starts.

To understand this easily, I recommend that you take a look at the
pictures on this page:

In the first case, we see that “before conditioning” a hot dog causes
the dog to salivate, and the neutral stimulus (the bell) does not.
After associating the bell with the hot dog a few times (during the
conditioning stage), the dog unconsciously learns to associate the two
events (picture 2), and we can see in picture 3 that the simple
ringing of the bell (without the hot dog) now causes the dog to
salivate reflexively (or involuntarily).

Psychology, or more accurately behavior theory, uses this idea as an
example of Classical (Respondent) Conditioning, of which involuntary
an emotion or physiological response will be issued as a result. “In
the area of classroom learning, classical conditioning primarily
influences emotional behavior. Things that make us happy, sad, angry,
etc. become associated with neutral stimuli that gain our attention.
For example, if a particular academic subject or remembering a
particular teacher produces emotional feelings in you, those emotions
are probably a result of classical conditioning.”
Source: Classical (Respondent) Conditioning

Voluntary or “emmited behavior” is a part of Operant (Instrumental)
Conditioning which is defined as a “connection of emitted behavior and
its consequences (reinforcement and punishment).”
“Educational Psychology Interactive: The Behavior System”

The idea of this theory is that “the types of stimuli used
(positive/pleasant or negative/aversive” and the addition or taking
away of the stimulus will over time cause a certain behavior (although
it is still voluntary).

Suppose we use the dog example again. If the dog does not chase the
fed-ex person after he/she delivers a package, you give the dog a hot
dog to eat. The dog learns to associate not chasing the messenger with
a reward. Occasionally the dog still chases the fed-ex person, but is
less likely to do so because the dog might want the hot dog instead.
As a result of giving the dog a hot dog for doing something good, the
behavior of the dog improves (voluntarily or consciously).

Here is a web page from Athabasca University that talks about Positive
Reinforcement (and provides examples):
Positive Reinforcement: A Self-Instructional Exercise 

There is also Negative Reinforcement (punishment) and here is an
excellent website to learn more about this (from Maricopa Community
Negative Reinforcement


I found that involuntary vs. voluntary action also plays a part in
Law. I wasn’t sure if you were interested in this, but will briefly go
over it anyway in case you are interested, and point you to some
additional pages:

“But let's say that you parked in a non-prohibited area in the winter.
A snow plough comes along and unbeknownst to you pushes your parked
car into a prohibited area. You have a valid defence to the parking
ticket in this scenario because the Crown cannot prove that you
voluntarily parked your car in the prohibited area. The actus reus for
the offence has not been made out.”
University of Alberta Faculty of Law

This same article goes on to say that in law “to have acted
voluntarily, an accused needs only to have been in a conscious, willed
control of her muscular movements. Despite this, there are different
ways in which a defense of lack of voluntariness can be advanced. One
example is where some other person has used the accused as an innocent
agent by, for instance, grabbing her arm and forcing it to strike
someone else.”

There are similarities and differences between philosophy and law
regarding voluntary and involuntary actions. Whereas in law, there are
more clear cut definitions or rules of what is acceptable or not, in
philosophy we take into account intuition, ethics, personal feeling
(those are just some variables).


I found an interesting article entitled “What is voluntary and what is
involuntary” by St. John Damascene at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
of Australia. The author of this article takes a look at voluntary vs.
involuntary actions from a religious perspective.

Here is an excerpt that I found to be most interesting.
“An involuntary act is one in which the beginning is from without, and
where one does not contribute at all on one's own impulse to that
which one is force" And by beginning we mean the creative cause. All
involuntary act depends, on the other hand, on ignorance, when one is
not the cause of the ignorance one's self, but events just so happen.
For, if one commits murder while drunk, it is an act of ignorance, but
yet not involuntary: for one was one's self responsible for the cause
of the ignorance, that is to say, the drunkenness. But if while
shooting at the customary range one slew one's father who happened to
be passing by, this would be termed an ignorant and involuntary act.”

This does of course tie in with the Philosophical (Aristotle)
definition of the word. It does show that from a religious point of
view (at least this author’s) there is a more definite separation of
the two terms (and I guess more practical approach as well).

You might be interested in reading the following entries from Hyper



I hope that this was what you were expecting from this additional
research. If you need any clarifications feel free to let me know and
I will get back to you as soon as possible.


Search Strategy:

voluntary action involuntary

voluntary action involuntary philosophy

voluntary action involuntary psychology

voluntary involuntary action OR actions

voluntary involuntary law

"voluntary action" OR "voluntary actions" "involuntary action" OR
"involuntary actions"

Clarification of Answer by tisme-ga on 13 Jan 2003 18:40 PST
Hello again,

I meant to include the following two sources with the Law section in
case you were interested in exploring these terms further in the
context of Law:

"Criminal Law Outline (No. 2)"

"Criminal Law Common Law/ Model Penal Code Comparisons" (by Professor
Brickey at Washington University)
Google HTML Version:

All the best,


Request for Answer Clarification by qpet-ga on 13 Jan 2003 21:53 PST
Hi tisme-ga, I had posted a request for clarification earlier today,
but somehow I must have push the wrong button. So I'll try again:
Your answer is very useful.However you sparcked my interest in your
first paragraph. I would like to know how this concept is treated in
the field of psychology and philosophy. If you are interested, I would
be happy to double the list price if that works for you.
Let me know,

Clarification of Answer by tisme-ga on 13 Jan 2003 22:09 PST
Hello qpet,

I did receive your Request for Clarification and have already done the
research as requested. Please see the clarification that I posted:

13 Jan 2003 18:33 PST 

Thank you,

qpet-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $25.00
Hi tisme-ga,
I had only looked at the end of the page and saw the comment by
and miissed your clarification. thank you for the extra info, great
stuff I can use!- I added $25 tip to compensate for your time.
Thanks again,

Subject: Re: Voluntary vs. involuntary
From: peskyeskie-ga on 13 Jan 2003 10:31 PST
Another way of looking at the answer is to consider the different
branches of the peripheral (outside the brain and spinal cord) nervous
system which carries the signal from the brain to the effector organs.

The 'efferent' nerves sending signals out of the spinal cord , (as
opposed to those arriving which are the 'afferent' ones and include
sensory nerves such as heat, touch and pain receptors) are split in to
two main branches:
'somatic' - the voluntary groups of muscle such as your  biceps, and
'autonomic' - for involuntary muscles and control of sweat glands and
so on.

The autonomic nervous system is further divided into the 'sympathetic'
and 'parasympathetic'  branches, which activate under different
environmental conditions, one generally for involuntary maintenance
like peristalsis to move food through the gut, and one for
emergencies/ more physical situations where the body preapre for
'fight or flight', and involuntary preparation where you send less
blood to the brain and more to your muscles, and inhibit housekeeping
functions such as peristalsis and producing urine.

A common mistake is to think that breathing is involuntary and so
autonomic nervous system controlled. Breathing is voluntary, but just
like a reflex withdrawal of your hand triggered by touching a hot
thing, breathing has another trigger: high CO2 in the blood.
You can hold your breath, just like you can force yourself to override
the reflex and hold you hand in a flame.  But when you pass out, the
CO2 level and higher control will keep triggering the intercostal
muscles to open and close your lungs. Just to make sure you keep
breathing while asleep and passed out!


Physiology Grad.
Subject: Re: Voluntary vs. involuntary
From: tommorris-ga on 13 Apr 2003 17:40 PDT
In English law, you have interesting features like automatism, which
is a involuntary loss of self control, and can encompass sleepwalking,
sudden reflex actions, fits, spasms etc. Eg. R v Cogden - woman kills
her daughter while sleepwalking, found not guilty as she was acting
like an automaton.

Also, if you are provoked to such a degree that you kill someone, then
the test that they apply (the provocation test) asks whether you
suffered from a 'sudden and temporary loss of self control' (and
whether a reasonable man would have acted in the same way...).

All very interesting.

(By the way, I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. But I might
become one...)

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