Motor decisions are not black and white: selecting actions in the “gray zone”

D. M. Comalli, D. Persand, K. E. Adolph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In many situations, multiple actions are possible to achieve a goal. How do people select a particular action among equally possible alternatives? In six experiments, we determined whether action selection is consistent and biased toward one decision by observing participants’ decisions to go over or under a horizontal bar set at varying heights. We assessed the height at which participants transitioned from going over to under the bar within a “gray zone”—the range of bar heights at which going over and under were both possible. In Experiment 1, participants’ transition points were consistently located near the upper boundary of the gray zone, indicating a bias to go over rather than under the bar. Moreover, transitional behaviors were clustered tightly into a small region, indicating that decisions were highly consistent. Subsequent experiments examined potential influences on action selection. In Experiment 2, participants wore ankle weights to increase the cost of going over the bar. In Experiment 3, they were tested on a padded surface that made crawling under the bar more comfortable. In Experiment 4, we introduced a secondary task that required participants to crawl immediately after navigating the bar. None of these manipulations altered participants’ decisions relative to Experiment 1. In Experiment 5, participants started in a crawling position, which led to significantly lower transition points. In Experiment 6, we tested 5- to 6-year-old children as in Experiment 1 to determine the effects of social pressure on action selection. Children displayed lower transition points, larger transition regions, and reduced ability to go over the bar compared to adults. Across experiments, results indicate that adults have a strong and robust bias for upright locomotion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1793-1807
Number of pages15
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2017


  • Action selection
  • Affordance perception
  • Locomotion
  • Motor decisions
  • Obstacles

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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