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Learning to Expect the Future: Anticipatory saccades relate monitoring and associative learning processes




Florian Gouret

PhD student     


     Christina Pfeuffer

Dr. Christina Pfeuffer

Principal Investigator



Research Assistants:

Joséphine Bielik

Caspar Geißler




When sending an e-mail, we often look towards the spot where the feedback that our message has successfully been sent will appear while pressing the send button. Though such eye movements may appear trivial at first glance, they demonstrate our impressive abilities to predict the future consequences of our actions and reveal which effects we expect our actions to have. Thus, such anticipatory eye movements reflect a proactive effect monitoring process that prepares a later comparison of the expected and actual effects of our actions (i.e., reactive effect monitoring) to determine whether our expectations were met or violated. The results of this comparison (i.e., of the reactive effect monitoring process) are thought to then affect subsequent associative learning processes which are the basis of goal-directed action. From all possible actions, humans can only select exactly the right actions to reach their goals, because, throughout their lives, they learned bi-directional associations between their actions and the effects of these actions (response-effect associations). Whenever we aim to produce an effect in the environment, the respective response-effect association is activated and the appropriate action is selected. These response-effect associations can be assessed by comparing participants´ performance when, following their responses, effects will occur at (spatially) compatible (e.g., left response ► effect on the left) versus incompatible locations (e.g., left response ► effect on the right; response-effect compatibility effect). That is, humans typically respond faster when they press a light switch on the right hand side to turn on a light on the right rather than on the left. Consequently, response-effect associations determine a person´s effect expectations which, in turn, supposedly determine proactive and reactive effect monitoring processes. These monitoring processes, in turn, will ultimately adapt said response-effect associations. Yet, this connection between learning and effect monitoring in goal-directed action control has only been theorized about, but it has not been investigated so far. The project aims to improve our understanding of the basic principles of human goal-directed action control and to help establish anticipatory eye movements as a window to cognition also in other, more applied areas.


related previous work:

Pfeuffer, C.U., Kiesel, A., & Huestegge, L. (2016). A Look into the Future: Spontaneous anticipatory saccades reflect processes of anticipatory action control. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 1530-1547.


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