Skip to main content

Why Do People Act and How Does It Work?

Why Do People Act and How Does It Work?

A DFG research group is examining this question from various perspectives of psychology. Professor Susanne Mayr, psychologist at the University of Passau with a focus on human-machine interaction, is participating in the research.

Reaching for the coffee cup while reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, operating the volume control on the radio, or using the brakes in the event of danger: People act constantly – often without consciously thinking about it. Why and how people act, or how they learn to act – this question is investigated by a group of cognitive researchers headed up by psychology professor Christian Frings from the University of Trier.

A team from the University of Passau is also participating in the DFG research group "Integration and Recall of Characteristics in Action Control": Professor Susanne Mayr, holder of the Chair of Human-Machine Interaction, Dr. Malte Möller and doctoral student Ruyi Qiu, together with Professor Iring Koch from the Rheinisch-Westfälisch Technische Hochschule Aachen, are investigating how disturbing noises affect human action.

Non-relevant information lingers

A person can concentrate on a speech signal, even if he or she is confronted with additional acoustic input, at the same time. Psychologists refer to this as the “cocktail party phenomenon” – because it is also typical for a cocktail party to have conversations, while loud background noise must be faded out. However, the brain apparently doesn't completely suppress the background noises, but stores them in combination with certain events.

"In our previous research, we have been able to show that this non-relevant information has an after-effect on processing," says Professor Mayr. The psychologist had participants in her experiments do a kind of hearing test: First, they had to learn to recognise various sounds recorded via headphones and react to them by pressing a button. In the actual experiment, during this task an additional noise was recorded on the other ear that had to be ignored. In some cases, this ignored noise had to be reacted to later. 

"We could observe that the reaction slows down in these cases. Once I have learned to ignore something, it has an effect on my subsequent behaviour when this stimulus is repeated", says Professor Mayr. Within the research group, Professor Mayr and his team are investigating this effect. They are testing specific hypotheses on the formation and function of these so-called stimulus-reaction episodes and are investigating how they are stored in memory. 

Findings on how operating errors can occur

"We are interested in how contexts or references that have nothing to do with the actual task influence action", says Professor Mayr. Research could provide important insights into how malfunctions of devices occur and thus help, for example, to design autocockpits in such a way that such errors are avoided.


The findings from Passau on the role of acoustic stimuli are incorporated into a framework model that brings together various psychological approaches for controlling human activity. Professor Frings from the University of Trier says that many facets of human action control have been analysed independently in the past. This will shape the new, integrative framework model. It should enable new hypotheses and predictions, even beyond the field of action control, says Professor Frings.

Participants and funding

The University of Trier co-ordinates the DFG research group. 13 established scientists and 8 doctoral candidates – connected by a virtual laboratory in Trier – conduct their research at seven locations: Aachen, Jena, Freiburg, Leiden, Passau, Würzburg and Trier.

The German Research Foundation (DFG) is funding the group with approximately EUR 1.8 million for the first three years.


Principal Investigator(s) at the University Prof. Dr. Susanne Mayr (Lehrstuhl für Psychologie mit Schwerpunkt Mensch - Maschine - Interaktion)
Project period 02.10.2019 - 01.10.2022
Source of funding
DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft > DFG - Forschungsgruppe
DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft > DFG - Forschungsgruppe

Playing the video will send your IP address to an external server.

Show video