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Barriers to success: physical separation optimizes event-file retrieval in shared workspaces


Sharing tasks with other persons can simplify our work and life, but seeing and hearing other people's actions may also be very distracting. The joint Simon effect (JSE) is a standard measure of referential response coding when two persons share a Simon task. Sequential modulations of the joint Simon effect (smJSE) are interpreted as a measure of event-file processing containing stimulus information, response information and information about the just relevant control-state active in a given social situation. This study tested effects of physical (Experiment 1) and virtual (Experiment 2) separation of shared workspaces on referential coding and event-file processing using a joint Simon task. In Experiment 1, participants performed this task in individual (go–nogo), joint and standard Simon task conditions with and without a transparent curtain (physical separation) placed along the imagined vertical midline of the monitor. In Experiment 2, participants performed the same tasks with and without receiving background music (virtual separation). For response times, physical separation enhanced event-file retrieval indicated by an enlarged smJSE in the joint Simon task with curtain than without curtain (Experiment1), but did not change referential response coding. In line with this, we also found evidence for enhanced event-file processing through physical separation in the joint Simon task for error rates. Virtual separation did neither impact event-file processing, nor referential coding, but generally slowed down response times in the joint Simon task. For errors, virtual separation hampered event-file processing in the joint Simon task. For the cognitively more demanding standard two-choice Simon task, we found music to have a degrading effect on event-file retrieval for response times. Our findings suggest that adding a physical separation optimizes event-file processing in shared workspaces, while music seems to lead to a more relaxed task processing mode under shared task conditions. In addition, music had an interfering impact on joint error processing and more generally when dealing with a more complex task in isolation.

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  1. 1.

    Referential coding allows separating internally and externally activated feature codes. Internally activated feature codes refer to the activation of representations of own intended anticipated action effects, while externally activated feature codes are those codes being perceived by other humans (Hommel, 2009; Hommel et al., 2001; Liepelt, von Cramon, & Prinz, 2008; Prinz, 1997) or event-producing objects (Dolk et al., 2013). Due to a common representational level of action perception, action imagination and action production (Prinz, 1997) own planned and perceived or imagined action effects produce an action discrimination conflict for action control. This conflict can be resolved by emphasizing (cf. intentional weighting principle; Memelink & Hommel, 2013) on features discriminating best between them in a given task context (Hommel, 1993; Hommel et al., 2001; Sellaro, Dolk, Colzato, Liepelt, & Hommel, 2015)—that in the joint Simon task is the spatial dimension.

  2. 2.

    For the standard Simon task go and nogo transitions refer to same and different response location, respectively (i.e., go=left response, nogo=right response).

  3. 3.

    We performed an additional ANOVA including the factors Order (with the 6 different orders performed) and Setting (joint vs. individual vs. standard Simon task) to rule out any order effects. The analysis revealed no significant main effect of Order, F(5, 16) = 0.75, p = 0.06, partial η 2 = 0.19. We also did not find any significant interaction effects with the factor Order (Fs < 2.90, ps > 0.124), except a significant interaction of Order × Curtain × Setting × Transition, F(10, 35) = 2.90, p < 0.05, partial η 2 = 0.476.

  4. 4.

    For the standard Simon task go and nogo transitions refer to same and different response location, respectively (i.e., go=left response, nogo=right response).

  5. 5.

    The additional ANOVA including the factors Order (with the 6 different orders performed) and Setting (joint vs. individual vs. standard Simon task) performed to rule out any order effects revealed no significant main or interaction effect with the factor Order (Fs < 2.34, ps > 0.24).


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The present research was financially supported by the German Research Foundation Grants DFG LI 2115/1-1; 1-3 awarded to R.L. We would like to thank Kerstin Dittrich and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.

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Correspondence to Bibiana Klempova or Roman Liepelt.

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Klempova, B., Liepelt, R. Barriers to success: physical separation optimizes event-file retrieval in shared workspaces. Psychological Research 82, 1158–1176 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-017-0886-2

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