Conscious behavioral intentions can frequently fail under conditions of attentional depletion. In attempting to trace the cognitive origin of this effect, we hypothesized that failures of action control—specifically, oculomotor movement—can result from the imposition of fronto-executive load. To evaluate this prediction, participants performed an antisaccade task while simultaneously completing a working-memory task that is known to make variable demands on prefrontal processes (n-back task, see Jonides et al., 1997).
The results of two experiments are reported. As expected, antisaccade error rates were increased in accordance with the fronto-executive demands of the n-back task (Experiment 1). In addition, the debilitating effects of working-memory load were restricted to the inhibitory component of the antisaccade task (Experiment 2). These findings corroborate the view that working memory operations play a critical role in the suppression of prepotent behavioral responses.