Understanding the flexibility of action–perception coupling
The idea that observing an action triggers an automatic and obligatory activation of an imitative action in the motor system of the observer has recently been questioned by studies examining complementary actions. Instead of a tendency for imitation, cooperative settings may facilitate the execution of dissimilar actions, resulting in a relative disadvantage for imitative actions. The present study aimed at clarifying the contribution of associative learning and interference of task representations to the reversal of congruency effects. To distinguish between the two, an experiment was designed, in which we increased the effects of associative learning and minimized the effects of task interference. Participants completed a series of imitation and complementary action runs, in which they continuously imitated or complemented the actions of a virtual co-actor. Each run was alternated with a test run showing the same actions but including color-cues, and the participants were instructed to respond to color instead of the actor’s posture. Reaction times to test runs showed no reversal of facilitation effects between the imitation and complementary action conditions. This result strongly argues that associative learning cannot adequately account for reversed facilitation effects. Our study provides additional support for action–perception models that allow flexible selection of action–perception coupling and challenges the existing models purely based on stimulus–response associations.