Mechanisms of social agency

Supervisors: Bert TimmermansRamakrishna Chakravarthi

Project Description:

Self-agency, the feeling of causing an event through one’s own actions, is central to everyday life. Legal and moral accountability stems from the understanding that a person ‘owns’ his/her actions and their consequences. The mechanisms underlying this Sense of Agency (SoA) have been studied extensively [1]. SoA has been measured either explicitly by means of asking people to judge the causality of their action, or implicitly by measuring the degree of intentional binding. The latter refers to the compression of perceived time between an action and its effect [1]. Surprisingly, however, most studies of agency have examined simple actions like button presses, whereas in everyday life most of our actions are interactions, particularly with other individuals. The few studies that examine SoA in direct social interactions [2-3] do not investigate the most interesting aspect of social interactions where the other’s voluntary action is the consequence of my action.

This interdisciplinary project, combining approaches from social psychology and neuroscience, is designed to fill in this large knowledge gap by systematically uncovering the mechanisms of the SoA in social contexts. Since the other in social interactions is also a voluntary agent, in contrast to inanimate objects, we expect that the SoA is experienced differently. In specific, the social SoA will depend on discerning that the other is an agent, which in part relies on ascertaining that the other has multiple options and a choice of using those options. To test this, we will ask participants to perform an action (cause) which is then followed by the other’s (re)action (effect) and assess their sense of ownership of this cause-effect sequence. This ownership will be measured explicitly (subjective ratings) and implicitly (intentional binding). In a series of three experiments, using two distinct paradigms across two communicative modalities (hand movements and gaze), we will

1) test the effect of interacting with a human or an inanimate object while manipulating the duration between the cause and effect to assess the temporal evolution of the SoA in social versus non-social contexts;
2) examine the neural mechanisms of social SoA by probing the electroencephalographic (EEG) components underlying the outcomes obtained in the first experiment;
3) study the effect of systematically manipulating a) the social-ness of the other from a purely inanimate object to a fully animate agent (e.g., moving dots to moving eyes) and b) the number of available options for the other. We predict that the social SoA is strongest at longer action-effect intervals than its non-social equivalent and that its strength is strongly modulated by the degree to which the other is perceived as an agent.

The outcomes of this project would not only shed light on the foundations of social interactions, but also have implications for a) the standards for legal and moral responsibility in the society, and b) failures of social interactions, such as in autism and schizophrenia, and hence might help provide solutions to improve care for such individuals.


[1] Haggard, 2019, Annual Review of Psychology 70:17.1–17.20;
[2] Beyer et al. 2018, eNeuro 10.1523/ENEURO.0336-17.2018;
[3] Engbert et al., 2007, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 33(6):1261.

If you wish to apply for this project, pleadse go to this link.