Psychological Research

, Volume 68, Issue 2–3, pp 138–154

Contiguity and contingency in action-effect learning

Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/s00426-003-0151-8

Cite this article as:
Elsner, B. & Hommel, B. Psychological Research (2004) 68: 138. doi:10.1007/s00426-003-0151-8


According to the two-stage model of voluntary action, the ability to perform voluntary action is acquired in two sequential steps. Firstly, associations are acquired between representations of movements and of the effects that frequently follow them. Secondly, the anticipation or perception of an acquired action effect primes the movement that has been learnt to produce this effect; the acquired action-effect associations thus mediate the selection of actions that are most appropriate to achieve an intended action goal. If action-effect learning has an associative basis, it should be influenced by factors that are known to affect instrumental learning, such as the temporal contiguity and the probabilistic contingency of movement and effect. In two experiments, the contiguity or the contingency between key presses and subsequent tones was manipulated in various ways. As expected, both factors affected the acquisition of action-effect relations as assessed by the potency of action effects to prime the corresponding action in a later behavioral test. In particular, evidence of action-effect associations was obtained only if the effect of the action was delayed for no more than 1 s, if the effect appeared more often in the presence than in the absence of the action, or if action and effect were entirely uncorrelated but the effect appeared very often. These findings support the assumption that the control of voluntary actions is based on action-effect representations that are acquired by associative learning mechanisms.

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Cognition and ActionMax Planck Institute for Psychological ResearchMunichGermany
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of HeidelbergHeidelbergGermany
  3. 3.Cognitive Psychology UnitLeiden UniversityThe Netherlands

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