The impact of precaution and practice on the performance of a risky motor task

Hila Keren, Pascal Boyer, Joel Mort, David Eilam*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The association between threat perception and motor execution, mediated by evolved precaution systems, often results in ritual-like behavior, including many idiosyncratic acts that seem irrelevant to the task at hand. This study tested the hypothesis that threat-detection during performance of a risky motor task would result in idiosyncratic activity that is not necessary for task completion. We asked biology students to follow a particular set of instructions in mixing three solutions labeled "bio-hazardous" and then repeat this operation with "non-hazardous" substances (or vice versa). We observed a longer duration of the overall performance, a greater repertoire of acts, longer maximal act duration, and longer mean duration of acts in the "risky" task when it was performed before the non-risky: task. Some, but not all, of these differences were eliminated when a "non-risky" task preceded the "risky" one. The increased performance of idiosyncratic unnecessary activity is in accordance with the working hypothesis of the present study: ritualized idiosyncratic activities are performed in response to a real or illusionary threat, as a means to alleviate anxiety.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)316-329
Number of pages14
JournalBehavioral Sciences
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2013


  • Affect
  • Anxiety
  • Behavior
  • Cognition
  • Emotion
  • Precaution


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