Priming the sense of agency. How does knowledge about a prime influence the sense of action control?

Invited talk by Leon Ciechanowski, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warsaw.

Sense of agency [SoA] (Gallagher, 2000; Haggard & Tsakiris, 2009), by some scientists called sense of control [SoC] (Chambon & Haggard, 2012; Wenke, Fleming, & Haggard, 2010), by others strongly distinguished from SoA (Pacherie, 2007), is a feeling of controlling one’s own movements or thoughts. There have been a number of experiments devoted to the operationalization of this phenomenon. However, there were no experiments that would scrutinize the influence of action selection on sense of agency, even though this aspect seems to be significant in the process of experiencing control over actions. Therefore, Wenke, Fleming and Haggard (2010) created an experimental procedure that examines action selection impact on sense of agency, while minimizing the presence of action effects. They found out that if we subliminally prime the response of subjects, they will report a significantly higher sense of agency in cases where the prime (a cue in the form of an arrow) is compatible with the target (an arrow pointing to left or right) stimulus. The explanation of this phenomenon is that in such cases subjects do not experience the sense of effort, which lowers their sense of agency in the prime-action incompatible trials (where the prime cued different response-direction than the target stimulus). In sum, the subliminal cue “supported” subjects’ decisions, so that they felt an ease in “choosing” the proper response to the target. Nevertheless, there is no experimental procedure that would comprise informing subjects about the presence of the subliminal prime. The original experiment by Wenke, Fleming and Haggard did not take into the final account these subjects who reported noticing the prime. At the same time, these persons (the data from whom was ultimately excluded from the final statistics) reported higher sense of agency in prime-action incompatible trials. In my experiment I hope to provide some evidence for the hypothesis that informing subjects about the subliminal prime will significantly change their sense of agency, in fact that it will reverse the effect evoked by sense of effort – i.e., informing subjects about the prime will expectably allow them to “fight off” the unconscious influence of the prime and in turn make them more confident about their sense of agency in prime-action incompatible trials. Sense of effort may be here correlated with a sort of an unconscious response conflict (Sebanz & Lackner, 2007).

References: Chambon, V., & Haggard, P. (2012). Sense of control depends on fluency of action selection, not motor performance. Cognition, 125(3), 441–51. Gallagher, S. (2000). Philosophical conceptions of the self: implications for cognitive science. Trends in cognitive sciences, 4(1), 14–21. Haggard, P., & Tsakiris, M. (2009). The Experience of Agency, 18(4), 242–246. Pacherie, E. (2007). The Sense of Control and the Sense of Agency. Psyche, 13(1). Sebanz, N., & Lackner, U. (2007). Who’s calling the shots? Intentional content and feelings of control. Consciousness and Cognition, 16, 859–876. Wenke, D., Fleming, S. M., & Haggard, P. (2010). Subliminal priming of actions influences sense of control over effects of action. Cognition, 115(1), 26–38.