On the relation between the sense of agency and the experience of flow

Only 6 months after initial submission, our paper on the phenomenology of agency and the flow state is out in Consciousness and Cognition.

In the experiments, volunteer participants played an arcade-style computer game, and provided judgments of how in control they felt, or judgments of flow, after each 20-second round of the game. The phenomenology of flow is interesting because it is a very common experience, although people might not know this verbal label for it. Basically, it is an enjoyable immersion into an activity, where time seems to lose meaning and performing the task takes an almost effortless quality. The flow state is commonly reported by musicians, sportspeople, gamers, and computer programmers, but can also occur during any activity that one can find enjoyable. Flow is sometimes called ‘Zone’, especially in the sports literature, and we adopted this terminology, but think that Zone and Flow are isomorphic.

The volunteers played the computer game at seven different levels of difficulty, and we were interested in whether difficulty has a similar influence on experiences of flow and control. It turns out that difficulty–we manipulated it by varying the speed of the game–influences these two experiences quite differently, as seen in the figure below. Increasing game difficulty leads to a rapid decline in the sense of control (we called this ‘agency’), but the relationship between the flow experience and task difficulty was quite different: Our participants reported the highest flow experiences at middle levels of difficulty, but gave lower reports of flow as the task became more difficult, likely reflecting the fact that flow usually peaks when a person’s abilities match the current task demands.

img Figure 3 of Vuorre and Metcalfe (2016): Bayesian multilevel linear regression model of Agency and Zone judgments from Experiment 2. a) Judgments as a function of game speed and JOP (Judgments of Performance, the participant’s subjective evaluation of how well they did on each round of the game; blue = high JOP; red = low JOP). Circles are means from raw data, regression lines at ±1 SD of JOP are displayed with 95% CIs as gray shades. b) Histograms of 100,000 samples from the posterior distribution of the regression effects with 95% CIs (gray shades).

Apart from an academic interest in the phenomenology of action, I find these experiences interesting because they feature prominently in rock climbing. (I love rock climbing but don’t get to do too much of it here in Manhattan.) Climbers very often report that they experience an effortless but total sense of control, but sometimes they also report that their bodies seem to know what to do without any conscious input from the climber. There appears to be something paradoxical in the relationship between flow and control (Young & Pain, 1999), and we think that one dimension of an activity is specifically responsible for the dissociation between these two experiences, namely, the difficulty of the current task.


  • Vuorre, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2016). The relation between the sense of agency and the experience of flow. Consciousness and Cognition, 43. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2016.06.001 [PDF]

  • Young, J. A., & Pain, M. D. (1999). The zone: Evidence of a universal phenomenon for athletes across sports. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, 1(3), 21–30.