The action is in the task set, not in the action

Maria M. Robinson, John Clevenger, David E. Irwin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In 7 experiments we contrasted two accounts for novel sources of attentional bias. According to the action-based account, executing a motor response towards an object causes people to allocate attention preferentially towards properties of that object in a subsequent task even when properties of the acted-on object are task irrelevant. This remarkable view entails that motor processing is in itself sufficient to affect later attentional processing, in the absence of stimulus evaluation and motor preparation. In contrast, the attentional template matching account posits that observing an external object that matches one's prior attentional settings increases processing of that object even when properties of the item are no longer task relevant. Our findings indicate that when properties of a stimulus are task irrelevant, acting towards that object does not produce priming effects over and above what is observed from passive viewing of the object. Furthermore, when properties of the stimulus are task relevant, effects on attention are observed only when participants have sufficient information to generate a task based attentional template of the upcoming stimulus, regardless of whether they act towards the stimulus or not. Finally, effects on attention are found under conditions when participants are likely to experience an attentional template match but do not produce a response. Collectively, these results reveal that previously reported motor-based effects on attention instead reflect the effects of attentional bias towards objects that serve as prior targets. Our findings thus provide strong support for the attentional template view and no support for the action-based view.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17-42
Number of pages26
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - Feb 2018
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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