Publications of Sebanz, N

Knoblich G, Butterfill S, Sebanz N. Psychological research on joint action: theory and data. In: Ross BH, editor. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation. San Diego: Elsevier; 2011. p. 59-101. (The psychology of learning and theory: Advances in research and theory).

The effect of social context on the use of visual information

Social context modulates action kinematics. Less is known about whether social context also affects the use of task relevant visual information. We tested this hypothesis by examining whether the instruction to play table tennis competitively or cooperatively affected the kind of visual cues necessary for successful table tennis performance. In two experiments, participants played table tennis in a dark room with only the ball, net, and table visible. Visual information about both players' actions was manipulated by means of self-glowing markers. We recorded the number of successful passes for each player individually. The results showed that participants' performance increased when their own body was rendered visible in both the cooperative and the competitive condition. However, social context modulated the importance of different sources of visual information about the other player. In the cooperative condition, seeing the other player's racket had the largest effects on performance increase, whereas in the competitive condition, seeing the other player's body resulted in the largest performance increase. These results suggest that social context selectively modulates the use of visual information about others' actions in social interactions.

On the inclusion of externally controlled actions in action planning

According to ideomotor theories, perceiving action effects produced by others triggers corresponding action representations in the observer. We tested whether this principle extends to actions performed by externally controlled limbs and tools. Participants performed a go-no-go version of a spatial compatibility task in which their own actions resulted in the movement of a limb or tool, whereas a second, externally controlled limb or tool was seen performing a complementary go-no-go task. Spatial compatibility effects, indicating inclusion of the externally controlled effector in action planning, were observed when the externally controlled limb was identical to the controlled limb (Experiment 1) and when actions of limbs and tools (Experiment 2) or pairs of tools (Experiment 3 and 4) were combined according to participants' motor experience. When participants acted together, controlling a tool each, spatial compatibility effects occurred regardless of motor experience (Experiment 5). These findings demonstrate that (a) externally controlled tool actions are included in action planning and (b) social context modulates how externally controlled actions are mapped onto action representations. Implications of these findings for theories of perception-action links and object processing are discussed.

The GROOP effect: Groups mimic group actions. Cognition

Research on perception-action links has focused on an interpersonal level, demonstrating effects of observing individual actions on performance. The present study investigated perception-action matching at an inter-group level. Pairs of participants responded to hand movements that were performed by two individuals who used one hand each or they responded to hand movements performed by an individual who used both hands. Apart from the difference in the number of observed agents, the observed hand movements were identical. If co-actors form action plans that specify the actions to be performed jointly, then participants should have a stronger tendency to mimic group actions than individual actions. Confirming this prediction, the results showed larger mimicry effects when groups responded to group actions than when groups responded to otherwise identical individual actions. This suggests that representations of joint tasks modulate automatic perception-action links and facilitate mimicry at an inter-group level.

Making oneself predictable: Reduced temporal variability facilitates joint action coordination

Performing joint actions often requires precise temporal coordination of individual actions. The present study investigated how people coordinate their actions at discrete points in time when continuous or rhythmic information about others' actions is not available. In particular, we tested the hypothesis that making oneself predictable is used as a coordination strategy. Pairs of participants were instructed to coordinate key presses in a two-choice reaction time task, either responding in synchrony (Experiments 1 and 2) or in close temporal succession (Experiment 3). Across all experiments, we found that coactors reduced the variability of their actions in the joint context compared with the same task performed individually. Correlation analyses indicated that the less variable the actions were, the better was interpersonal coordination. The relation between reduced variability and improved coordination performance was not observed when pairs of participants performed independent tasks next to each other without intending to coordinate. These findings support the claim that reducing variability is used as a coordination strategy to achieve predictability. Identifying coordination strategies contributes to the understanding of the mechanisms involved in real-time coordination.

The joint Flanker effect: Sharing tasks with real and imagined co-actors

The Eriksen flanker task (Eriksen and Eriksen in Percept Psychophys 16:143-149, 1974) was distributed among pairs of participants to investigate whether individuals take into account a co-actor's S-R mapping even when coordination is not required. Participants responded to target letters (Experiment 1) or colors (Experiment 2) surrounded by distractors. When performing their part of the task next to another person performing the complementary part of the task, participants responded more slowly to stimuli containing flankers that were potential targets for their co-actor (incompatible trials), compared to stimuli containing identical, compatible, or neutral flankers. This joint Flanker effect also occurred when participants merely believed to be performing the task with a co-actor (Experiment 3). Furthermore, Experiment 4 demonstrated that people form shared task representations only when they perceive their co-actor as intentionally controlling her actions. These findings substantiate and generalize earlier results on shared task representations and advance our understanding of the basic mechanisms subserving joint action.

Giving a helping hand: Effects of joint attention on mental rotation of body parts

Research on joint attention has addressed both the effects of gaze following and the ability to share representations. It is largely unknown, however, whether sharing attention also affects the perceptual processing of jointly attended objects. This study tested whether attending to stimuli with another person from opposite perspectives induces a tendency to adopt an allocentric rather than an egocentric reference frame. Pairs of participants performed a handedness task while individually or jointly attending to rotated hand stimuli from opposite sides. Results revealed a significant flattening of the performance rotation curve when participants attended jointly (experiment 1). The effect of joint attention was robust to manipulations of social interaction (cooperation versus competition, experiment 2), but was modulated by the extent to which an allocentric reference frame was primed (experiment 3). Thus, attending to objects together from opposite perspectives makes people adopt an allocentric rather than the default egocentric reference frame.

Observing shared attention modulates gaze following. Cognition

Humans' tendency to follow others' gaze is considered to be rather resistant to top-down influences. However, recent evidence indicates that gaze following depends on prior eye contact with the observed agent. Does observing two people engaging in eye contact also modulate gaze following? Participants observed two faces looking at each other or away from each other before jointly shifting gaze to one of two locations. Targets appeared either at the cued location or at the non-cued location. In three experiments gaze cueing effects (faster responses to objects appearing at the cued location) were found only when the two faces had looked at each other before shifting gaze. In contrast, no effects of gaze following were observed when the two faces had looked away from each other. Thus, the attentional relation between observed people modulates whether their gaze is followed.

Contextual determinants of the social transfer of learning effect

A recent study (Milanese et al. in Cogn 116(1):15-22, 2010) showed that performing a spatial compatibility task with incompatible S-R links (i.e., the practice task) alongside a co-actor eliminates the Simon effect in a subsequent joint Simon task (i.e., the transfer task). In the present study, we conducted three experiments to individuate which elements of the practice task need to remain constant for this social-transfer-of-learning to occur. In Experiment 1, participants performed the practice task alongside a co-actor and the Simon task with a different co-actor; in Experiment 2, they performed the practice task alongside a co-actor and the Simon task with the same co-actor after exchanging their seats. Results showed a modulation of the joint Simon effect in Experiment 1 only. In Experiment 2, we found a regular joint Simon effect. These results indicate that, while co-actor identity is not crucial, other elements of the context, such as keeping the same position across tasks, are necessary for the social-transfer-of-learning to occur. On the whole, our data suggest that the social-transfer-of-learning effect is not tuned to a specific co-actor and depends on spatial parameters of the practice and transfer tasks.

The effect of social context on the use of visual information

Social context modulates action kinematics. Less is known about whether social context also affects the use of task relevant visual information. We tested this hypothesis by examining whether the instruction to play table tennis competitively or cooperatively affected the kind of visual cues necessary for successful table tennis performance. In two experiments, participants played table tennis in a dark room with only the ball, net, and table visible. Visual information about both players' actions was manipulated by means of self-glowing markers. We recorded the number of successful passes for each player individually. The results showed that participants' performance increased when their own body was rendered visible in both the cooperative and the competitive condition. However, social context modulated the importance of different sources of visual information about the other player. In the cooperative condition, seeing the other player's racket had the largest effects on performance increase, whereas in the competitive condition, seeing the other player's body resulted in the largest performance increase. These results suggest that social context selectively modulates the use of visual information about others' actions in social interactions.

On the inclusion of externally controlled actions in action planning

According to ideomotor theories, perceiving action effects produced by others triggers corresponding action representations in the observer. We tested whether this principle extends to actions performed by externally controlled limbs and tools. Participants performed a go-no-go version of a spatial compatibility task in which their own actions resulted in the movement of a limb or tool, whereas a second, externally controlled limb or tool was seen performing a complementary go-no-go task. Spatial compatibility effects, indicating inclusion of the externally controlled effector in action planning, were observed when the externally controlled limb was identical to the controlled limb (Experiment 1) and when actions of limbs and tools (Experiment 2) or pairs of tools (Experiment 3 and 4) were combined according to participants' motor experience. When participants acted together, controlling a tool each, spatial compatibility effects occurred regardless of motor experience (Experiment 5). These findings demonstrate that (a) externally controlled tool actions are included in action planning and (b) social context modulates how externally controlled actions are mapped onto action representations. Implications of these findings for theories of perception-action links and object processing are discussed.

The GROOP effect: Groups mimic group actions

Research on perception-action links has focused on an interpersonal level, demonstrating effects of observing individual actions on performance. The present study investigated perception-action matching at an inter-group level. Pairs of participants responded to hand movements that were performed by two individuals who used one hand each or they responded to hand movements performed by an individual who used both hands. Apart from the difference in the number of observed agents, the observed hand movements were identical. If co-actors form action plans that specify the actions to be performed jointly, then participants should have a stronger tendency to mimic group actions than individual actions. Confirming this prediction, the results showed larger mimicry effects when groups responded to group actions than when groups responded to otherwise identical individual actions. This suggests that representations of joint tasks modulate automatic perception-action links and facilitate mimicry at an inter-group level.

Let the force be with us: Dyads exploit haptic coupling for coordination

People often perform actions that involve a direct physical coupling with another person, such as when moving furniture together. Here, we examined how people successfully coordinate such actions with others. We tested the hypothesis that dyads amplify their forces to create haptic information to coordinate. Participants moved a pole (resembling a pendulum) back and forth between two targets at different amplitudes and frequencies. They did so by pulling on cords attached to the base of the pole, one on each side. In the individual condition, one participant performed this task bimanually, and in the joint condition two participants each controlled one cord. We measured the moment-to-moment pulling forces on each cord and the pole kinematics to determine how well individuals and dyads performed. Results indicated that dyads produced much more overlapping forces than individuals, especially for tasks with higher coordination requirements. Thus, the results suggest that dyads amplify their forces to generate a haptic information channel. This likely reflects a general coordination principle in haptic joint action, where force amplification allows dyads to perform at the same level as individuals.