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

Kristína Czekóová, Daniel Joel Shaw, Martin Lamoš, Beáta Špiláková, Miguel Salazar, Milan Brázdil

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)212-230
Number of pages19
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number1
Early online date12 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

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Funding: This study has received funding from Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic under the Project CEITEC 2020 (LQ1601) and the Czech Science Foundation (grant number: GA15-16738S). The authors acknowledge the core facility MAFIL of CEITEC supported by the MEYS CR (LM2018129 Czech-BioImaging).


  • Automatic imitation
  • Orthogonal spatial compatibility
  • Polarity correspondence
  • Semantic control


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