Automatically controlled: Task irrelevance fully cancels otherwise automatic imitation

Eitan Hemed, Ilya Mark-Tavger, Uri Hertz, Shirel Bakbani-Elkayam, Baruch Eitam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Automatic imitation refers to the act of unintentionally mimicking observed actions. Inspired by a theoretical framework that allows for controlled yet unintentional processes, we tested whether automatic imitation depends on the task relevance of the to-be-imitated movements. Replicating previous results, we find that movements that are part of the participant’s task set unintentionally influence response. Our key finding is that participants generally do not imitate similar and highly familiar movements that are not part of the task set and hence are task-irrelevant. Furthermore, the results of computational data modeling are consistent with the notion that task-relevance modulates the mental activation of information, as posited by the above theoretical framework. Our findings are not predicted and cannot be explained using current accounts of automatic imitation, such as Associative Sequence Learning or Theory of Event Coding. At a broader level, the key contribution of this study is in challenging the empirical basis for automatic imitation by showing that the effects interpreted as imitation occur only for task relevant responses. This pattern lends itself to a different interpretation which is not related to imitation, automatic or otherwise, but rather to the general phenomenon of response compatibility effects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Lize De-Coster (University Carlos III of Madrid) for giving us permission to use the set of images to generate stimuli for the current study. We thank Rika (Rivka) Aviv and Amier Kardosh for their assistance in data collection on Experiment 1B. This research was supported by The Israel Science Foundation (ISF) Grant 339/16 and The Bi-national Science Foundation (BSF) Grant 2016/299 to Baruch Eitam.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 American Psychological Association


  • automatic and controlled processes
  • automatic imitation
  • computational modeling
  • relevance
  • stimulus-response compatibility

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology (all)
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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