A review by Dr. Nicholas Hon explores the relationship between the sense of agency and attention.
It is clear that we can tell apart the things we cause to happen from those we do not. This ability to sense our agency in some outcome is fundamental because it underpins many important aspects of our social life (e.g., it supports our sense of self).
Because it feels so simple to accomplish, it may be tempting to assume that sensing agency is a mental “freebie” that accompanies behaviour. However, research has demonstrated that it is, in fact, produced by an elaborate comparison process in which we compare our predictions of the outcome of our actions to what actually happens. A match between these produces a sense of agency and a mismatch produces a feeling of non-agency. While a lot is now known about its production, what is less clear is how the sense of agency relates to other cognitive domains.
A recent review by Dr. Nicholas Hon (pictured above) from the Department of Psychology in NUS has examined how attention is involved in agency processing, suggesting two ways in which the two are related.
First, attention appears to be required when making predictions about outcomes. It turns out that, when we are not able to pay full attention, we have difficulty creating proper predictions of what will happen. This consequently lessens the sense of agency we feel over an outcome we actually cause. Thus, agency processing appears to be reliant on attentional resources.
Second, one of the more interesting findings in the literature is that our sense of agency can be influenced by extraneous (i.e., nothing to do with us) information. However, it appears that this can only happen if the extraneous information receives some measure of our attention.
The idea that sensing agency is reliant on attention hints at several important practical and conceptual implications. For example, it may be that, when we cannot pay full attention, we may not feel as responsible over outcomes we cause. This could have ramifications for social and legal situations. Additionally, because tasks requiring attention are essentially those that are consciously controlled, it may be that the sense of agency is, in fact, consciously created.
Hon, N. (2017). Attention and the sense of agency: A review and some thoughts on the matter. Consciousness and Cognition, 56, 30-36. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2017.10.004