Agency and reward

How do we do what we do?  ::  Nura Sidarus, UCL, 22 August 2015  ::

Summary and review of the above paper

This paper can be taken as suggesting that a sense of agency is part of the reward system, encouraging repetition or non-repetition of particular actions or behaviours.

Two experiments

Two experiments by the author seek to demonstrate this connection. In the first experiment, there are buttons pointing to the left or right, with a prompt arrow telling the experimental subjects which arrow to press. Pressing either arrow results in a different coloured circle appearing on the screen. This extremely simple process is rendered a bit more complex by a ‘prime’ to the arrow that the experimental subjects see. A prime is an image that is shown for too short a time to enter consciousness, but can nevertheless influence unconscious processing.

dopamine reward system

Two versions of the experiment were used. In the first, the prime pointed in the same direction as the subsequent and consciously perceived arrow. In the second, the prime pointed in the opposite direction to the consciously perceived arrow. What scanning of the subjects indicated was that when they had to override the prime in order to obey the subsequent perceived arrow, their reaction times were slower and their error rate was higher.

Sense of agency

Perhaps, surprisingly however, their sense that what happened after pressing the button was a result of their agency was greater in the version where the prime and the perceived arrows pointed in the same direction, than when they had to make some form of effort to override the misleading prime. This seems somewhat counterintuitive, as one might tend to assume that the effort of overcoming the prime would itself be indicative of some sort of agency.

Second experiment

A second experiment (Sidarus & Haggard) indicated the same tendency for agency to be more apparent to the subject when processing was easy rather than difficult or conflicted. In this study, there were three letters displayed on screen to indicate to the subjects which button they should press. Letter ‘S’ indicated press the left button. Letter ‘H’ indicated press the right button. Letter ‘O’ indicated that they could press either button. However, if letter ‘S’ was flanked by contrary letters as in ‘HHSHH’, reaction times slowed down and errors increased. There was a similar effect if ‘H’ was flanked in the same way. DopamineseratoninHowever, as with the first experiment there was a greater sense of agency where the instructing letter was not flanked by contrary letters, and there was therefore no conflicted deterioration in reaction times and error rates.


The author’s suggestion here is that fluency of processing and the associated sense of agency functions effectively as a reward for following a process that does not involve energy consuming conflicts, which in turn encourages an organism to repeat the process that gives such a sense or agency, or avoid processes that suffer from a reduced sense of agency.

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