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Freedom to act enhances the sense of agency, while movement and goal-related prediction errors reduce it


The Sense of Agency (SoA) is the experience of controlling one’s movements and their external consequences. Accumulating evidence suggests that freedom to act enhances SoA, while prediction errors are known to reduce it. Here, we investigated if prediction errors related to movement or to the achievement of the goal of the action exert the same influence on SoA during free and cued actions. Participants pressed a freely chosen or cued-colored button, while observing a virtual hand moving in the same or in the opposite direction—i.e., movement-related prediction error—and pressing the selected or a different color—i.e., goal-related prediction error. To investigate implicit and explicit components of SoA, we collected indirect (i.e., Synchrony Judgments) and direct (i.e., Judgments of Causation) measures. We found that participants judged virtual actions as more synchronous when they were free to act. Additionally, movement-related prediction errors reduced both perceived synchrony and judgments of causation, while goal-related prediction errors impaired exclusively the latter. Our results suggest that freedom to act enhances SoA and that movement and goal-related prediction errors lead to an equivalent reduction of SoA in free and cued actions. Our results also show that the influence of freedom to act and goal achievement may be limited, respectively, to implicit and explicit SoA, while movement information may affect both components. These findings provide support to recent theories that view SoA as a multifaceted construct, by showing that different action cues may uniquely influence the feeling of control.

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The study was supported by PRIN grant (Progetti di Ricerca di Rilevante Interesse Nazionale, Edit. 2015, Prot. 20159CZFJK; and Edit. 2017, Prot. 2017N7WCLP) and by European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (eHONESTY, Prot. 789058) to SMA.

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Correspondence to Riccardo Villa.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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The experimental protocol was approved by the ethics committee of Fondazione Santa Lucia (Prot. CE/PROG. 686) and was performed in accordance with the 1964 declaration of Helsinki. All participants read and provided written informed consent prior to taking part in the study.

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The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Villa, R., Tidoni, E., Porciello, G. et al. Freedom to act enhances the sense of agency, while movement and goal-related prediction errors reduce it. Psychological Research 85, 987–1004 (2021).

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  • Sense of agency
  • Movement
  • Goal
  • Free choice
  • Prediction errors
  • Action monitoring
  • Behavioral adjustments
  • Virtual scenario