Imitation or Polarity Correspondence? Behavioural and Neurophysiological Evidence for the Confounding Influence of Orthogonal Spatial Compatibility on Measures of Automatic Imitation

Czekóová K, Shaw DJ, Lamoš M, Špiláková B, Salazar M, Brázdil M.

Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2021 Jan 12. doi:10.3758/s13415-020-00860-y. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33432546.

15 Jan 2021

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During social interactions, humans tend to imitate one another involuntarily. To investigate the neurocognitive mechanisms driving this tendency, researchers often employ stimulus-response compatibility (SRC) tasks to assess the influence that action observation has on action execution. This is referred to as automatic imitation (AI). The stimuli used frequently in SRC procedures to elicit AI often confound action-related with other nonsocial influences on behaviour; however, in response to the rotated hand-action stimuli employed increasingly, AI partly reflects unspecific up-right/down-left biases in stimulus-response mapping. Despite an emerging awareness of this confounding orthogonal spatial-compatibility effect, psychological and neuroscientific research into social behaviour continues to employ these stimuli to investigate AI. To increase recognition of this methodological issue, the present study measured the systematic influence of orthogonal spatial effects on behavioural and neurophysiological measures of AI acquired with rotated hand-action stimuli in SRC tasks. In Experiment 1, behavioural data from a large sample revealed that complex orthogonal spatial effects exert an influence on AI over and above any topographical similarity between observed and executed actions. Experiment 2 reproduced this finding in a more systematic, within-subject design, and high-density electroencephalography revealed that electrocortical expressions of AI elicited also are modulated by orthogonal spatial compatibility. Finally, source localisations identified a collection of cortical areas sensitive to this spatial confound, including nodes of the multiple-demand and semantic-control networks. These results indicate that AI measured on SRC procedures with the rotated hand stimuli used commonly might reflect neurocognitive mechanisms associated with spatial associations rather than imitative tendencies.

Keywords: Automatic imitation; Orthogonal spatial compatibility; Polarity correspondence; Semantic control.

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