Socio-affective influences on neural and behavioural correlates of agency

  • Beyer, Frederike (Principal Investigator (PI))
  • Haggard, Patrick (Supervisor)

Project: DFG ProjectsDFG Scholarships: Research Fellowships

Project Details


The Sense of Agency (SoA) describes the subjective feeling that a given event was caused by our own voluntary action. Normal human functioning, especially in a social context, depends on an intact SoA in order to allocate responsibility and estimate the control one has over a given situation. However, SoA is likely influenced by a range of contextual and affective variables, which are scarcely understood to date. It is the aim of the proposed project to investigate changes in neural and behavioural correlates of agency due to three factors: social exclusion, which affects a person`s control and self-esteem in a social interaction; feeling of shame, which is associated with the perception of uncontrollable failure to meet important standards; and acting as part of a group, which has been shown to lead to the diffusion of responsibility. Understanding variability in the experience of agency due to social and affective influences will improve our understanding of important changes in perception, cognition and behaviour due to these influences. In three different experimental manipulations, we will induce social exclusion, feeling of shame and the experience of acting as part of a group rather than individually. As a behavioural measure of agency we will use the intentional binding effect. Intentional binding describes the phenomenon that the interval between a button press and a subsequent tone is underestimated if the subject perceives that the tone was elicited by their own voluntary button press. We expect that intentional binding will be reduced following social exclusion, as well as following shame induction and when participants perceive the effect to be caused by a group action. We will use functional magnetic resonance imaging to compare the neural networks related to changes in agency due to social exclusion and shame. In the experiment implementing group vs. individual action, we will use EEG to investigate changes in the neural processing of an action`s effect. This work will improve our understanding of how agency is affected by everyday socio-affective situations and elucidate potential mechanisms by which these situations influence human behaviour.

Key findings

Sense of Agency (SoA) - the subjective feeling that a given event was caused by our own voluntary action - is a central aspect of human behaviour and closely linked to self-efficacy and the notion of responsibility. However, while a large proportion of human behaviour occurs in social contexts, it is insufficiently understood to date, how SoA is influenced by socio-affective action contexts. This project explored how different aspects of socio-affective contexts influence SoA, and how SoA is in turn related to learning. In a first study we combined a newly developed paradigm with electroencephalography. We showed that when acting in the presence of another potential agent, compared to acting alone, participants showed a reduction in subjective SoA over the outcomes of their own actions. Further, outcome monitoring, as reflected in the amplitude of the feedback-related negativity, was reduced in response to outcomes that were obtained in a social action context. Based on these findings, we investigated the role of mentalizing processes during the action selection phase using functional magnetic resonance imaging. We found that areas associated with the mentalizing network (temporo-parietal junction, medial precuneus) showed increased activity during the action phase of social trials, compared to non-social trials. Moreover, activity in the precuneus was negatively related to SoA on a trial-wise basis. These findings suggest that the need to consider other people’s intentions and potential actions may interfere with individual action planning, leading to reduced SoA. Thus, mentalizing processes may play a role in the finding that the presence of others can have substantial effects on individual action. In an ongoing study, we are exploring how acting in a positive or negative context affects the detection of control. Preliminary findings suggest that participants are faster at detecting a lack of control when acting in a sad context, but faster at detecting a surplus of control when acting in a happy context. Such findings have potentially important implications for our understanding of affective disorders. In another ongoing project, we explore the effect of instrumental control on associative learning and the development of incentive salience. In a first study based on current models of addiction, we found that active control over the offset of a painful stimulus increases the incentive salience for an offset-related visual cue. This was compared to a visual cue predicting passive pain offset. These findings show an interaction between instrumental and classical conditioning and are currently further investigated using electroencephalography. In conclusion, this project highlighted important interactions between the presence of other people, the affective valence of an action context, sense of agency and associative learning. Future research in this field will help us develop more comprehensive models of human learning in different contexts, the development of a sense of self-efficacy, and ultimately the shaping of social behaviour.
Effective start/end date01.01.1531.12.17

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)

DFG Research Classification Scheme

  • 206-08 Cognitive and Systemic Human Neuroscience


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