A central aspect of human experience and communication is understanding events in terms of agent (“doer”) and patient (“undergoer” of action) roles. These event roles are rooted in general cognition and prominently encoded in language, with agents appearing as more salient and preferred over patients. An unresolved question is whether this preference for agents already operates during apprehension, that is, the earliest stage of event processing, and if so, whether the effect persists across different animacy configurations and task demands. Here we contrast event apprehension in two tasks and two languages that encode agents differently; Basque, a language that explicitly case-marks agents (‘ergative’), and Spanish, which does not mark agents. In two brief exposure experiments, native Basqueand Spanish speakers saw pictures for only 300 ms, and subsequently described them or answered probe questions about them. We compared eye fixations and behavioral correlates of event role extraction with Bayesian regression. Agents received more attention and were recognized better across languages and tasks. At the same time, language and task demands affected the attention to agents. Our findings show that a general preference for agents exists in event apprehension, but it can be modulated by task and language demands.

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Author notes

Competing Interests: The authors declare no conflict of interests.

These authors contributed equally.

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