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.
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At first sight, causality ratings may seem to be more related to classical conditioning than to instrumental learning. Indeed, just like causal judgments, classical conditioning is about the relationship of, and the resulting association between two events, such as a perceived cause and a perceived effect. That such an association may be the basis for our perception of causality was the core of Hume’s (1739/1964) approach. In contrast, original interpretations of instrumental learning did not assume that the effect of an action is actually learned; instead, an effect was claimed to only signal whether the response producing it is to be learned or strengthened (e.g., Thorndike, 1927). Thus, the original concept of instrumental learning treats action effects as merely providing the “glue” needed to associate responses and the stimuli preceding them (Walker, 1969) but not as elements of the resulting memory trace (Hommel, 1998). However, more recent studies have shown that even animals acquire knowledge about the content of action-effect relations (Brogden, 1962; Meck, 1985; Rescorla, 1992; Trapold, 1970; Urcuioli & DeMarse, 1996; for an overview, see Elsner & Hommel, 2001), which lends credit to Tolman, Hall, and Bretnall’s (1932) view of action effects as information to be integrated, i.e., knowledge about action effects may well become a part of an action’s representation (Hommel, 1998), which again may underlie our ability to perceive that action as causing the effect (Haggard, Aschersleben, Gehrke, & Prinz, 2002). However, even though we tend to relate action-effect learning more to instrumental learning than to classical conditioning, nothing in our conclusions depends on this preference.
It may be a concern that asking participants to attend to the action-effect relationship may have rendered the learning more “explicit” than in Experiment 1 and, thus, may have engaged a different learning mechanism. We have no evidence that would support this consideration. Firstly, Hommel, Alonso, and Fuentes (2001) investigated action-effect learning under an “implicit” instruction in a large sample and sorted their participants according to whether they were able or were not able to recall the response-effect mapping of the learning phase after the test phase. There was no evidence that learning was any different in these two groups, suggesting that the impact of action-effect associations does not depend on, and is not even modified by, explicit knowledge. (We made the same observation in a number of pilot studies where we systematically manipulated the emphasis given to the action-effect relation.) Secondly, if an “explicit” instruction would really engage a different, more intentional learning mechanism, this would be expected to increase the correlation between the consistency effects and the causality judgments; and yet, we will see that this correlation is anything but impressive. Thirdly, we will see that the effective conditions in Experiment 2 produced effects that are very comparable in size to the effects obtained in Experiment 1, which does also not support the assumption that different learning mechanisms were at work.
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This research was supported by a grant of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Collaborative Research Center 462: Sensorimotor Processes). We thank Kathrin Mühlbauer, Mark Staiger, and Silke Wendels for running the experiments, and Fiorello Banci and Karl-Heinz Honsberg for their assistance in constructing the apparatus.
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Elsner, B., Hommel, B. Contiguity and contingency in action-effect learning. Psychological Research 68, 138–154 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-003-0151-8