How action structures time: About the perceived temporal order of action and predicted outcomes

Cognition. 2016 Jan:146:100-9. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.08.011. Epub 2015 Sep 24.


Few ideas are as inexorable as the arrow of causation: causes must precede their effects. Explicit or implicit knowledge about this causal order permits humans and other animals to predict and control events in order to produce desired outcomes. The sense of agency is deeply linked with representation of causation, since it involves the experience of a self-capable of acting on the world. Since causes must precede effects, the perceived temporal order of our actions and subsequent events should be relevant to the sense of agency. The present study investigated whether the ability to predict the outcome of an action would impose the classical cause-precedes-outcome pattern on temporal order judgements. Participants indicated whether a visual stimulus (dots moving upward or downward) was presented either before or after voluntary actions of the left or right hand. Crucially, the dot motion could be either congruent or incongruent with an operant association between hand and motion direction learned in a previous learning phase. When the visual outcome of voluntary action was congruent with previous learning, the motion onset was more often perceived as occurring after the action, compared to when the outcome was incongruent. This suggests that the prediction of specific sensory outcomes restructures our perception of timing of action and sensory events, inducing the experience that congruent effects occur after participants' actions. Interestingly, this bias to perceive events according to the temporal order of cause and outcome disappeared when participants knew that motion directions were automatically generated by the computer. This suggests that the reorganisation of time perception imposed by associative learning depends on participants' causal beliefs.

Keywords: Action; Agency; Causality; Prediction; Temporal order.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Motion Perception / physiology*
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Time Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult