Either or neither, but not both: locating the effects of masked primes

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Execution of a response that has been primed by a backward-masked stimulus is inhibited (negative compatibility effect; NCE). Three experiments investigated the locus of this inhibition. Masked primes (left- or right-pointing arrows) were followed either by an arrow or a circle target. Arrow targets always required a left- or right-hand response, but the experiments differed in the response required to circles: press neither, either or both response keys (i.e. nogo, free choice and bimanual, respectively). Arrow targets showed the usual NCEs. Circle targets showed NCEs in the form of a response bias away from the primed response in the nogo and free-choice tasks; primes and targets differed on these trials, ruling out a perceptual explanation of the NCE. The bimanual task showed no such bias, suggesting that the NCE is located at a level of abstract response codes rather than specific muscle commands.

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