Agency alters perceptual decisions about action-outcomes

Exp Brain Res. 2016 Oct;234(10):2819-27. doi: 10.1007/s00221-016-4684-7. Epub 2016 Jun 8.


Humans experience themselves as agents, capable of controlling their actions and the outcomes they generate (i.e., the sense of agency). Inferences of agency are not infallible. Research shows that we often attribute outcomes to our agency even though they are caused by another agent. Moreover, agents report the sensory events they generate to be less intense compared to the events that are generated externally. These effects have been assessed using highly suprathreshold stimuli and subjective measurements. Consequently, it remains unclear whether experiencing oneself as an agent lead to a decision criterion change and/or a sensitivity change. Here, we investigate this issue. Participants were told that their key presses generated an upward dot motion but that on 30 % of the trials the computer would take over and display a downward motion. The upward/downward dot motion was presented at participant's discrimination threshold. Participants were asked to indicate whether they (upward motion) or the computer (downward motion) generated the motion. This group of participants was compared with a 'no-agency' group who performed the same task except that subjects did not execute any actions to generate the dot motion. We observed that the agency group reported seeing more frequently the motion they expected to generate (i.e., upward motion) than the no-agency group. This suggests that agency distorts our experience of (allegedly) caused events by altering perceptual decision processes, so that, in ambiguous contexts, externally generated events are experienced as the outcomes of one's actions.

Keywords: Decision criteria; Motion coherence; Over-attribution; Sense of agency; Sensitivity.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Discrimination, Psychological*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology*
  • Male
  • Motion
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Self Concept*
  • Sensation*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult