The Conative Domain

    What is it?  Why is it Important?

    Occasionally, a good idea gets lost.  In the 1700’s, when the Scottish and German faculty psychologists thought that the mind had three “faculties”: Cognition - knowing, Affection -valuing and Conation – volition and striving.  (Hilgard, 1980; Snow, 1980) The faculty psychologists were insightful, but they did not have access to fMRI data. Today, using sophisticated brain-monitoring devices, we can determine which part of the brain is involved in specific types of thinking tasks.

    In spite of the lack of present-day technology, the faculty psychologists recognized that the behaviors related to the three faculties are distinctly different. The cognitive and affective domains are still prominent in the thinking of psychologists and educators today and taxonomies are available that categorize cognitive and affective behavior. (Bloom, ed., 1956, Taxonomy of Edcational Objectives,  Cognitive Domain; Krathwohl et al, 1964, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Affective Domain; Anderson et al, 2001, A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assesing; Marzano and Kendall, 2007,  The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives ).  What happened to the conative domain?


    As the field of psychology developed in the 1940’s and 50’s, interest shifted away from “faculties” of the mind (which could not be measured) to observable behaviors which could. As a result, behavior modification theory and strategies became the dominant factors in educational theory and practice. After all, who has seen the will? The result of the emphasis on behaviorism was that the concept of conation, with its emphasis on striving, the will and focused energy was “lost.” It simply ceased to be a factor in mainstream psychological thinking.


    Before a judgment can be made about the efficacy of the conative domain for these times, we must first consider what conation is. Here are three definitions:

    • American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 1971:  “Aspect of mental processes or behavior directed toward action or change and including impulse, desire, volition, and striving.”

    • C. V. Good, Dictionary of Education, 1973.:  “That aspect of man’s psychic life having to do with striving and will, traditionally distinguished from cognition and affection.”

    • W. McDougall, The Energies of Men, 1932: “Although the modes of striving are so various, ranging from intense bodily activity to intellectual activity that involves a minimum of bodily expression, we find the same words suitable for describing this striving aspect common to all such activities. We say we are trying, striving, endeavoring, paying keen attention, making an effort, working hard, doing our utmost, exerting ourselves, concentrating all our energies, in technical terms. We are manifesting conation.”


    So what is conation? Conation is a psychological domain of behaviors or mental processes associated with goal-directed action.  In this context, we might say that “conation is vectored energy, i.e.: personal energy that has direction and magnitude” (Atman, 1987). Goals are important, but goals must be infused with personal energy if they are to move from items on a list to a record of action completed.


    Consider this application of the conative process: When we intentionally do something, we invest energy in the process of the doing. In this manner, our commitment to invest our energy in the work needed to reach the goal (something of value  - affective domain - that is linked to a knowledge or skill focus - content found in the cognitive domain)  will lead to the goal’s being accomplished. Without commitment and work completed, projects languish and goals are unmet.


    With an understanding of the importance of the brain’s Executive Function processes (McCloskey, Perkins and Van Divner, 2009), e.g. the capacity to set a goal, make a plan, monitor one’s own behavior or stop doing “dumb stuff” – and the willingness to activate that capacity - the individual can become an active participant in his/her own personal, maturational development.  In other words, he/she can become an “agent” on his/her own behalf.


    The Conative Domain provides a structural framework that enables us to examine the interaction of volition and goal-directed action and distinguish these processes from related processes found in goal orientation, intrinsic motivation, locus of control, self-regulation and self-efficacy. Investigating this interaction can provide useful data for designing educational processes and curriculum materials that can support and foster the process of maturational development that is at work in individuals throughout the life-span.


    For a more complete review of the conative domain see:  Atman, K. (1987). The role of conation (striving) in the distance education enterprise.   The American Journal of Distance Education. 1(1): pp. 14-24.

    Kathryn S. Atman, Ph. D.


    Copyright © 2014 Kathryn S. Atman, Ph. D.

    Last Updated (Tuesday, 07 October 2014 14:13)