Sub-Optimal allocation of time in sequential movements

Shih Wei Wu, Maria F. Dal Martello, Laurence T. Maloney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The allocation of limited resources such as time or energy is a core problem that organisms face when planning complex actions. Most previous research concerning planning of movement has focused on the planning of single, isolated movements. Here we investigated the allocation of time in a pointing task where human subjects attempted to touch two targets in a specified order to earn monetary rewards. Subjects were required to complete both movements within a limited time but could freely allocate the available time between the movements. The time constraint presents an allocation problem to the subjects: the more time spent on one movement, the less time is available for the other. In different conditions we assigned different rewards to the two tokens. How the subject allocated time between movements affected their expected gain on each trial. We also varied the angle between the first and second movements and the length of the second movement. Based on our results, we developed and tested a model of speed-accuracy tradeoff for sequential movements. Using this model we could predict the time allocation that would maximize the expected gain of each subject in each experimental condition. We compared human performance with predicted optimal performance. We found that all subjects allocated time sub-optimally, spending more time than they should on the first movement even when the reward of the second target was five times larger than the first. We conclude that the movement planning system fails to maximize expected reward in planning sequences of as few as two movements and discuss possible interpretations drawn from economic theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere8228
JournalPloS one
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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