Preoccupied minds feel less control: sense of agency is modulated by cognitive load

Conscious Cogn. 2013 Jun;22(2):556-61. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2013.03.004. Epub 2013 Apr 11.


People have little difficulty distinguishing effects they cause and those they do not. An important question is what underlies this sense of agency. A prevailing idea is that the sense of agency arises from a comparison between a predictive representation of the effect (of a given action) and the actual effect that occurs, with a clear match between the two producing a strong sense of agency. Although there is general agreement on this comparison process, one important theoretical issue that has yet to be fully determined is whether these computations are consciously performed. Here, we studied this issue by requiring participants to perform a simple judgment of agency task under conditions of different concurrent working memory load. Working memory operations are known to tax conscious cognitive resources. We found that agency judgments were moderated by working memory load, with lower agency ratings being observed in the high load condition, suggesting that the sense of agency is dependent on the availability of conscious cognitive resources. An examination of the time-course of this load effect suggests that it is the construction of the mental representation of the predicted effect which is particularly dependent on said resources.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Unconscious, Psychology*