Agency is the ability to act autonomously and freely, and in psychology the term is often used to refer to people who feel that they are able to act independently and effectively to control their own lives.

Understanding Agency

In some ways, the process of early growth and development is a progressive unfolding of more and more agency. Infants cannot even control their own bodily functions, let alone act on the world around them, while young children are typically fettered by parental rules and willingness to help them with activities. As children grow and develop, they tend to develop more agency and autonomy. However, agency is not necessarily a linear progression. The concept of agency does not just describe the ability to act independently, but rather one’s feeling that one can act independently in conjunction with the social and cultural forces that either enable or inhibit this ability. An adult prisoner, for example, might feel that he or she has much less agency than even a young child.

Agency in Psychology

Developing agency is a common goal in psychotherapy, and many therapists aim to help people act autonomously in a way that works best for their individual needs and lifestyles. Agency is also important for people who have mental health conditions that might interfere with their decision-making. For example, the director of a psychiatric hospital might discuss the importance of giving the people who stay there agency–the ability to exert some control over their everyday lives and to act on their own environments.

People who feel that they do not have any agency may be anxious or depressed, and may struggle with motivation or procrastination. People with dependent personality traits tend to feel helpless without others and may struggle to feel a sense of agency.


  1. Frie, R. (2008). Psychological agency: Theory, practice, and culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

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