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Conscious Cogn. 2009 Mar;18(1):12-21. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2008.09.007. Epub 2008 Oct 25.

Retrospective construction of the judgement of free choice.

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Department of Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany.


The problem of free will lies at the heart of modern scientific studies of consciousness. Some authors propose that actions are unconsciously initiated and awareness of intention is referred retrospectively to the action after it has been performed [e.g. Aarts, H., Custers, R., & Wegner, D. M. (2005). On the inference of personal authorship: Enhancing experienced agency by priming effect information. Consciousness & Cognition, 14, 439-458]. This contrasts with the common impression that our intentions cause those actions. By combining a stop signal paradigm and an intentional action paradigm we show that participants sometimes indicate to have intentionally initiated an action while reaction time data strongly suggest that they in fact failed to stop the action. In a second experiment we demonstrate that the number of trials in which participants misattributed their awareness of intention varied with the intentional involvement during action planning. Our data support the retrospective account of intentional action. Furthermore, we introduce an experimental approach that objectifies introspective judgments of awareness of intention.

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