Because everyday actions are statistically structured, knowing which action a person has just completed allows predicting the most likely next action step. Taking even more than the preceding action into account improves this predictability but also causes higher processing costs. Using fMRI, we investigated whether observers exploit second-order statistical regularities preferentially if information on possible upcoming actions provided by first-order regularities is insufficient. We hypothesized that anterior pFC balances whether or not second-order information should be exploited. Participants watched videos of actions that were structured by first- and second-order conditional probabilities. Information provided by the first and by the second order was manipulated independently. BOLD activity in the action observation network was more attenuated the more information on upcoming actions was provided by first-order structure, reflecting expectation suppression for more predictable actions. Activation in posterior parietal sites decreased further with second-order information but increased in temporal areas. As expected, second-order information was integrated more when less first-order information was provided, and this interaction was mediated by anterior pFC (BA 10). Observers spontaneously used both the present and the preceding action to predict the upcoming action, and integration of the preceding action was enhanced when the present action was uninformative.

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