Control Changes the Way We Look at the World

Published in: Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Volume 30, Issue 4, April 2018, 603-619

“The feeling of control is a fundamental aspect of human experience and accompanies our voluntary actions all the time. However, how the sense of control interacts with wider perception, cognition, and behavior remains poorly understood. This study focused on how controlling an external object influences the allocation of attention. Experiment 1 examined attention to an object that is under a different level of control from the others. Participants searched for a target among multiple distractors on screen. All the distractors were partially under the participant’s control (50% control level), and the search target was either under more or less control than the distractors. The results showed that, against this background of partial control, visual attention was attracted to an object only if it was more controlled than other available objects and not if it was less controlled. Experiment 2 examined attention allocation in contexts of either perfect control or no control over most of the objects. Specifically, the distractors were under either perfect (100%) control or no (0%) control, and the search target had one of six levels of control varying from 0% to 100%. When differences in control between the distractors and the target were small, visual attention was now more strongly drawn to search targets that were less controlled than distractors, rather than more controlled, suggesting attention to objects over which one might be losing control. Experiment 3 studied the events of losing or gaining control as opposed to the states of having or not having control. ERP measures showed that P300 amplitude proportionally encoded the magnitude of both increases and decreases in degree of control. However, losing control had more marked effects on P170 and P300 than gaining an equivalent degree of control, indicating high priority for efficiently detecting failures of control. Overall, our results suggest that controlled objects preferentially attract attention in uncontrolled environments. However, once control has been registered, the brain becomes highly sensitive to subsequent loss of control. Our findings point toward careful perceptual monitoring of degree of one’s own agentic control over external objects. We suggest that control has intrinsic cognitive value because perceptual systems are organized to detect it and, once it has been acquired, to maintain it.”

Written by: Wen Wen, Patrick Haggard
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