Soft constraints in interactive behavior: The case of ignoring perfect knowledge in-the-world for imperfect knowledge in-the-head

Wayne D. Gray, Wai Tat Fu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Constraints and dependencies among the elements of embodied cognition form patterns or microstrategies of interactive behavior. Hard constraints determine which microstrategies are possible. Soft constraints determine which of the possible microstrategies are most likely to be selected. When selection is non-deliberate or automatic the least effort microstrategy is chosen. In calculating the effort required to execute a microstrategy each of the three types of operations, memory retrieval, perception, and action, are given equal weight; that is, perceptual-motor activity does not have a privileged status with respect to memory. Soft constraints can work contrary to the designer's intentions by making the access of perfect knowledge in-the-world more effortful than the access of imperfect knowledge in-the-head. These implications of soft constraints are tested in two experiments. In experiment 1 we varied the perceptual-motor effort of accessing knowledge in-the-world as well as the effort of retrieving items from memory. In experiment 2 we replicated one of the experiment 1 conditions to collect eye movement data. The results suggest that milliseconds matter. Soft constraints lead to a reliance on knowledge in-the-head even when the absolute difference in perceptual-motor versus memory retrieval effort is small, and even when relying on memory leads to a higher error rate and lower performance. We discuss the implications of soft constraints for routine interactive behavior, accounts of embodied cognition, and tool and interface design.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)359-382
Number of pages24
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Bounded rationality
  • Embodied cognition
  • Embodiment level
  • Eye tracking
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Information access
  • Interactive behavior
  • Interface design
  • Knowledge in-the-world
  • Rational analysis
  • Soft constraints

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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