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Contingencies between objects and people can be mechanical or intentional–social in nature. In this fMRI study we used simplified stimuli to investigate brain regions involved in the detection of mechanical and intentional contingencies. Using a factorial design we manipulated the ‘animacy’ and ‘contingency’ of stimulus movement, and the subject’s attention to the contingencies. The detection of mechanical contingency between shapes whose movement was inanimate engaged the middle temporal gyrus and right intraparietal sulcus. The detection of intentional contingency between shapes whose movement was animate activated superior parietal networks bilaterally. These activations were unaffected by attention to contingency. Additional regions, the right middle frontal gyrus and left superior temporal sulcus, became activated by the animate–contingent stimuli when subjects specifically attended to the contingent nature of the stimuli. Our results help to clarify neural networks previously associated with ‘theory of mind’ and agency detection. In particular, the results suggest that low-level perception of agency in terms of objects reacting to other objects at a distance is processed by parietal networks. In contrast, the activation of brain regions traditionally associated with theory of mind tasks appears to require attention to be directed towards agency and contingency.