The Aeschi Working Group
MEETING THE SUICIDAL PERSON
The therapeutic approach to the suicidal patient
The theory of goal directed action
From: K. Michel, L. Valach: Suicide as goal-directed action, In: K. van Heeringen: Understanding Suicidal Behaviour, Wiley and Sons, Chichester 2001
Actions can best be understood in the context in which they develop. Action theory, or the theory of goal-directed action, represents a developmental systems theory to explain actions in terms of goals. There are various psychological models incorporating an action theoretical stance including cognitive psychology and social psychological theories of social control (von Cranach and Harr‚, 1982). These theories have been influential in Europe and North America (Kuhl 1986; von Cranach and Valach, 1986; Polkinghorne, 1990; Gollwitzer, 1996; Young et al., 1996), and particularly useful when applied to areas of everyday knowledge and experience.
In action theory, human behaviour is seen as goal-directed, and regulated by social and cognitive forces. It uses concepts that appear in the common language of everyday life, including goal, intention, plan, strategy, decision, evaluation, choice, success and failure. However, actions are embedded in comprehensive systems, which include mid-term projects (Valach et al., 1996) and long-term life projects, such as establishing a family (Valach, 1990), and thus relate to biographical goals, i.e. life career aspects.
At the individual level, actions are understood as being carried out by agents, i.e. by persons who are able to shape their environment and behaviours. They do this by pursuing projects, setting goals, making plans, and monitoring their own behaviour, thoughts, and emotions. Actions can only be understood against the background of the patient's short-term and long-term (life-) projects, which involve their environment. Social meaning therefore plays a special role in goal-directed action. Actions are the fabric of social interaction and have social consequences (von Cranach and Valach, 1983; Valach et al, 1988; Valach, 1995). One of the best examples of social action is group or joint action. The first applications of joint action theory were related to illness and patient career (Noack and Valach, 1985) and later developed further (Valach, 1990; Valach et al., 1996). Thus, career and project are conceptualised as joint goal-directed processes. Career is seen as a complex joint process consisting of long-term, medium-term and short-term systems organizations. It is a process of social groups and individual agents and actions. Consequently, joint actions present decisive points in a career. Depending on the structure of the group task, the career can be steered by another faculty than the person whose career is involved.
Actions are the result of conscious, unconscious and semi-conscious, goal-directed, planned and intended processes, which are cognitively and socially steered, controlled and regulated. They are motivated and accompanied by emotions. Conscious cognition is the highest system of self-monitoring in human knowledge processing system followed by emotional monitoring. Cognitions are represented via language. These ideas were elaborated in a series of publications (von Cranach and Valach, 1983; Kalbermatten and Valach, 1985; Valach et al., 1988). This conceptualisation of action therefore implies that people make sense of the actions of others and communicate their own actions by using action theoretical terms. In the patients' narratives life-career aspects and short-term projects as well as concepts related to action, such as intention, strategy, decision, and choice can be distinguished. Furthermore, actions are usually explained as joint actions, indicating that narratives include a person's social systems.
Gollwitzer P.M. (1996). The volitional benefits of planning.
In Gollwitzer P.M., Bargh J.A. (eds.) The psychology of action. Linking
cognition and motivation to behavior (pp. 287-312). The Guilford Press,
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