To head or to heed? Beyond the surface of selective action inhibition: a review

  • Wildenberg Wery P. M.
  • Wylie Scott A.
  • Forstmann Birte U.
  • Burle Boris
  • Hasbroucq Thierry
  • Ridderinkhof K. Richard

  • RT
  • Pre-supplementary motor area
  • STN
  • Reaction time
  • Subthalamic nucleus
  • Action control
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Response inhibition
  • Basal ganglia
  • Interference control Abbreviations AD/HD
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • EEG
  • Conditional accuracy function
  • CAF
  • Electroencephalography
  • EMG
  • Electromyography
  • IFC
  • Inferior frontal cortex
  • Pre-SMA


To head rather than heed to temptations is easier said than done. Since tempting actions are often contextually inappropriate, selective suppression is invoked to inhibit such actions. Thus far, laboratory tasks have not been very successful in highlighting these processes. We suggest that this is for three reasons. First, it is important to dissociate between an early susceptibility to making stimulus-driven impulsive but erroneous actions, and the subsequent selective suppression of these impulses that facilitates the selection of the correct action. Second, studies have focused on mean or median reaction times (RT), which conceals the temporal dynamics of action control. Third, studies have focused on group means, while considering individual differences as a source of error variance. Here, we present an overview of recent behavioral and imaging studies that overcame these limitations by analyzing RT distributions. As will become clear, this approach has revealed variations in inhibitory control over impulsive actions as a function of task instructions, conflict probability, and between-trial adjustments (following conflict or following an error trial) that are hidden if mean RTs are analyzed. Next, we discuss a selection of behavioral as well as imaging studies to illustrate that individual differences are meaningful and help understand selective suppression during action selection within samples of young and healthy individuals, but also within clinical samples of patients diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or Parkinson’s disease.