Coercion changes the sense of agency in the human brain Axel Cleeremans ULB 2016 02

Caspar, E. Christensen, J.F., Cleeremans, A., & Haggard, P. (2016). Coercion changes the sense of agency in the human brain. Current Biology, 26, 1-8.

People may deny responsibility for negative conse- quences of their actions by claiming that they were ‘‘only obeying orders.’’ The ‘‘Nuremberg defense’’ of- fers one extreme example, though it is often dis- missed as merely an attempt to avoid responsibility. Milgram’s classic laboratory studies reported wide- spread obedience to an instruction to harm, suggest- ing that social coercion may alter mechanisms of voluntary agency, and hence abolish the normal experience of being in control of one’s own actions. However, Milgram’s and other studies relied on dissembling and on explicit measures of agency, which are known to be biased by social norms. Here, we combined coercive instructions to admin- ister harm to a co-participant, with implicit measures of sense of agency, based on perceived compres- sion of time intervals between voluntary actions and their outcomes, and with electrophysiological recordings. In two experiments, an experimenter ordered a volunteer to make a key-press action that caused either financial penalty or demonstrably painful electric shock to their co-participant, thereby increasing their own financial gain. Coercion increased the perceived interval between action and outcome, relative to a situation where partici- pants freely chose to inflict the same harms. Interest- ingly, coercion also reduced the neural processing of the outcomes of one’s own action. Thus, people who obey orders may subjectively experience their ac- tions as closer to passive movements than fully voluntary actions. Our results highlight the complex relation between the brain mechanisms that generate the subjective experience of voluntary ac- tions and social constructs, such as responsibility.

COOL4-WP7update Axel Cleeremans ULB 2016 02  
COOL4-intro Axel Cleeremans ULB 2016 02  

This is the minutes of the COOL4 administrative meeting

On the other side of the mirror: Priming in cognitive and social psychology Axel Cleeremans ULB 2015 09

Doyen, S., Klein, O., Simons, D., & Cleeremans, A. (2014). On the other side of the mirror: Priming in cognitive and social psychology. Social Cognition, 32 (Supplement: Understanding priming effects in social psychology), 12-32.


Over the past several years, two largely separate traditions have collided, leading to controversy over claims about priming. We describe and contrast the main accounts of priming effects in cognitive and social psychology, focusing especially on the role of awareness. In so doing, we consider one of the core points of contention, claims about the effects of subliminal priming. Whereas cognitive psychologists often are interested in exploring how priming operates with and without awareness, social psychologists more commonly assume subliminality in order to bolster claims about the automaticity of priming. We discuss the criteria necessary to claim that a stimulus was processed entirely without awareness, noting the challenges in meeting those criteria. Finally, we identify three sources of conflict between the fields: awareness, replicability, and the nature of the underlying processes. We close by proposing resolutions for each of them. "

Dissociating conscious and unconscious learning with objective and subjective measures Axel Cleeremans ULB 2015 09

Gaillard, V., Cleeremans, A., & Destrebecqz, A. (2014). Dissociating conscious and unconscious learning with objective and subjective measures. Clinical EEG and Neuroscience, 45(1), 50-56.


According to functionalist theories, consciousness can be defined by the functions that it serves and by the way it contributes to cognition. For example, when trying to establish dissociations between conscious and unconscious knowledge, conscious representations would be identified by the fact that they allow cognitive control or successful identification or recollection, assessed by verbal reports or forced-choice tasks. Even though the functionalist approach has brought about important dissociation results concerning conscious and unconscious cognition, critics emphasize that it does not account for the qualitative properties of conscious experience. Phenomenal theories are precisely based on the notion that conscious representations are such that it feels like something to have these representations. Thus, one way to assess conscious knowledge is to ask people, after they have produced a forced-choice response, to identify their mental states through the use of subjective confidence ratings, in which they discriminate between a complete guess and a response based on some feeling of knowing. However, these 2 approaches are not mutually exclusive. In this article, we review a series of studies showing that the joint use of objective judgments about some external stimuli and about one’s own subjective knowledge concerning these stimuli, provides new insights into the putative dissociation between conscious and unconscious knowledge in learning.

The temporal dynamic of automatic inhibition of irrelevant actions Axel Cleeremans ULB 2015 09

Atas, A., & Cleeremans, A. (2015). The temporal dynamic of automatic inhibition of irrelevant actions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(2), 289-305.


Motor inhibition can occur even without conscious perception and any voluntary effort. Although it is now clear that such an inhibitory process needs time to unfold, its exact temporal dynamic remains to be elucidated. Therefore, the present study aims to examine the impact of various temporal factors on automatic motor inhibition using the masked priming task. Results shows that this process can be modulated by any factor that introduces time between the mask onset and the execution of target response, whether it stems from a purely external origin (mask-target SOA), a purely internal origin (spontaneous reaction time [RT] fluctuations), or a mix of both (RT fluctuations from the target sequence). Moreover, when the external temporal factor could not determine the direction of prime influence, the RT fluctuations had the strongest impact on the priming effect. These RT fluctuations are plausibly because of spontaneous trial-to-trial changes from more impulsive and error-prone decisions to more cautious and accurate decisions to the target. Indeed, both accuracy and speed were equally required during the task, but both requirements are impossible to achieve perfectly in every trial. This suggests that fluctuations in the level of caution in voluntary decisions can modulate unconscious and involuntary motor inhibition.

The relationship between human agency and embodiment Axel Cleeremans ULB 2015 09

Caspar, E., Cleeremans, A., & Haggard, P. (2015). The relationship between human agency and embodiment. Consciousness & Cognition, 33, 226-236.


Humans regularly feel a sense of agency (SoA) over events where the causal link between action and outcome is extremely indirect. We have investigated how intermediate (here, a robotic hand) events that intervene between action and outcome may alter SoA, using intentional binding measures. The robotic hand either performed the same movement as the participant (active congruent), or performed a similar movement with another finger (active incongruent). Binding was significantly reduced in the active incongruent relative to the active congruent condition, suggesting that altered embodiment influences SoA. However, binding effects were comparable between a condition where the robot hand made a congruent movement, and conditions where no robot hand was involved, suggest- ing that intermediate and embodied events do not reduce SoA. We suggest that human sense of agency involves both statistical associations between intentions and arbitrary out- comes, and an effector-specific matching of sensorimotor means used to achieve the outcome.

How can we measure awareness? An overview of current methods Axel Cleeremans ULB 2015 09

Timmermans, B., & Cleeremans, A. (2015). How can we measure awareness? An overview of current methods. In M. Overgaard (Ed.), Behavioural Methods in Consciousness Research, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 21-46.

Does level of processing affect the transition from unconscious to conscious perception? Axel Cleeremans ULB 2015 09

Anzulewicz, A., Asanowicz, D. , Windey, B., Paulewicz, B., Wierzchon, M. & Cleeremans, A. (2015). Does level of processing affect the transition from unconscious to conscious perception? Consciousness and Cognition, 36, 1-11.


Recently, Windey, Gevers, and Cleeremans (2013) proposed a level of processing (LoP) hypothesis claiming that the transition from unconscious to conscious perception is influ- enced by the level of processing imposed by task requirements. Here, we carried out two experiments to test the LoP hypothesis. In both, participants were asked to classify briefly presented pairs of letters as same or different, based either on the letters’ physical features (a low-level task), or on a semantic rule (a high-level task). Stimulus awareness was mea- sured by means of the four-point Perceptual Awareness Scale (PAS). The results showed that low or moderate stimulus visibility was reported more frequently in the low-level task than in the high-level task, suggesting that the transition from unconscious to conscious perception is more gradual in the former than in the latter. Therefore, although alternative interpretations remain possible, the results of the present study fully support the LoP hypothesis.


This document contains the Agenda and the Minutes of the COOL3 Administrative Meeting held on December 11th, 2014

COOL ANNUAL REPORT #2 (2014) Axel Cleeremans ULB 2015 02  
COOL3 – WP7 update Axel Cleeremans ULB 2015 02  
New frontiers in the rubber hand experiment: When a robotic hand becomes one’s own Axel Cleeremans ULB 2014 12

Caspar, E., De Beir, A., Magalhaes de Saldanha Da Gama, P., Yernaux, F., Cleeremans, A. & Vanderborght, B.
Behaviour Research Methods - doi:10.3758/s13428-014-0498-3

The rubber hand illusion is an experimental para- digm in which participants consider a fake hand to be part of their body. This paradigm has been used in many domains of psychology (i.e., research on pain, body ownership, agency) and is of clinical importance. The classic rubber hand para- digm nevertheless suffers from limitations, such as the ab- sence of active motion or the reliance on approximate mea- surements, which makes strict experimental conditions diffi- cult to obtain. Here, we report on the development of a novel technology—a robotic, user- and computer-controllable hand—that addresses many of the limitations associated with the classic rubber hand paradigm. Because participants can actively control the robotic hand, the device affords higher realism and authenticity. Our robotic hand has a comparative- ly low cost and opens up novel and innovative methods. In order to validate the robotic hand, we have carried out three experiments. The first two studies were based on previous research using the rubber hand, while the third was specific to the robotic hand. We measured both sense of agency and ownership. Overall, results show that participants experienced a “robotic hand illusion” in the baseline conditions. Furthermore, we also replicated previous results about agency and ownership.

BeckersULBProgram Axel Cleeremans ULB 2014 04  


Mechanisms of conscious and unconscious learning