Hedging your bets: intermediate movements as optimal behavior in the context of an incomplete decision

PLoS Comput Biol. 2015 Mar 30;11(3):e1004171. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004171. eCollection 2015 Mar.


Existing theories of movement planning suggest that it takes time to select and prepare the actions required to achieve a given goal. These theories often appeal to circumstances where planning apparently goes awry. For instance, if reaction times are forced to be very low, movement trajectories are often directed between two potential targets. These intermediate movements are generally interpreted as errors of movement planning, arising either from planning being incomplete or from parallel movement plans interfering with one another. Here we present an alternative view: that intermediate movements reflect uncertainty about movement goals. We show how intermediate movements are predicted by an optimal feedback control model that incorporates an ongoing decision about movement goals. According to this view, intermediate movements reflect an exploitation of compatibility between goals. Consequently, reducing the compatibility between goals should reduce the incidence of intermediate movements. In human subjects, we varied the compatibility between potential movement goals in two distinct ways: by varying the spatial separation between targets and by introducing a virtual barrier constraining trajectories to the target and penalizing intermediate movements. In both cases we found that decreasing goal compatibility led to a decreasing incidence of intermediate movements. Our results and theory suggest a more integrated view of decision-making and movement planning in which the primary bottleneck to generating a movement is deciding upon task goals. Determining how to move to achieve a given goal is rapid and automatic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Uncertainty
  • Young Adult

Grant support

The work was supported by a National Science Foundation grant (1358756). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.