Effects can precede their cause in the sense of agency

Marieke Rohde, Meike Scheller, Marc O. Ernst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


The sense of agency, i.e., the feeling that one׳s action is the cause of an external sensory event, involves causal inference based on the predicted sensory outcome of a motor act. Here, we investigated whether this inference process faithfully implements the physical principle that a cause (motor act) temporally precedes its effect (external sensory feedback). To this end, we presented participants with visual flashes that were temporally offset from voluntary button presses, including scenarios where the flash occurred shortly before the press. Participants then judged their experience of agency. As expected, cause-effect order is an important cue for this task: participants were far more likely to report agency for temporally lagging flashes than for leading flashes, even if very long sensory delays also disrupted the sense of agency (Experiment 1). This suggests that the temporal order between action and sensation is the dominant temporal cue for agency. However, when participants judged whether they had caused a first flash that occurred before the button press or a second flash that occurred afterwards, the temporal threshold for rejecting leading first flashes was relaxed proportionally to the delay of the second flash (Experiment 2). There was competition between different sensorimotor timing cues (temporal order favored the second flash and temporal proximity favored the first flash), and participants׳ tolerance for cause-effect inversions was modulated by the strength of the later, conflicting cue. We conclude that the perceived order of action and sensation is not used in a winner-take-all fashion in inference of agency. Instead, a probabilistic negotiation of the different timing cues favoring different flash events takes place postdictively, after presentation of the second flash.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)191-196
Number of pages7
Early online date19 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014


  • Sense of agency
  • Motor prediction
  • Temporal processing
  • perception and action


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