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Stimulus- and response-based interference contributes to the costs of switching between cognitive tasks

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Little is known about how stimulus- and response-based interference might interact to contribute to the costs of switching between cognitive tasks. We analyzed switch costs in a novel cued task-switching/card-matching paradigm in a large study (N = 95). We reasoned that interference from previously active task sets may be contingent upon the retrieval of these task sets via stimulus processing, or alternatively, via response processing. We examined the efficacy of these two factors through eligibility manipulations. That is, stimulus/response features that were capable of retrieving task sets from the previous trial remained eligible (or not) on the current trial. We report three main findings: first, no switch costs were found when neither stimulus features, nor response features, were adequate for the retrieval of the previously executed task sets. Second, we found substantial switch costs when, on switch trials, stimulus features kept the previously executed task eligible, and we found roughly equivalent switch costs when the previously executed response remained eligible. Third, evidence for stimulus-induced switch costs was exclusively observed when previously executed responses remained ineligible. These data indicate that stimulus-based interference, and of importance, response-based interference, contribute comparably to switch costs. Possible interpretations of non-additive switch costs are discussed.

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  1. 1.

    The WCST is often criticized for its complexity, which originates from arbitrary features of the standard material. Let r be the number of sorting rules, and let f be the number of rule features (r = 3, f = 4 for the WCST). There are fr distinct response cards (Dehaene & Changeux 1991), rendering the WCST a complex task requiring sufficient intellectual comprehension. fr may be considered as a general metric of card-matching complexity, c, with WCST-c = 64

  2. 2.

    The terms “stimulus-task” and “response-task” mean something completely different and should not be confused with similar terms used by Meiran (2000a, b): here they mean that the stimulus (or response) gets bound with the task set. In Meiran’s theory, the terms “stimulus-set” and “response-set” meant to represent two separate aspects of what we call here “task set”. The idea in that theory was that task sets are conglomerates of representations that include which aspects of the stimulus are attended/ignored (stimulus-set) and which parts of the response (representation) are attended/ignored—the “response-set”

  3. 3.

    Note that we conducted a control study in which the eligibility of reference cards/responses was manipulated by deleting one of the three reference cards instead of introducing response cues. The observed two-way interaction effect of Task Transition and CTE that we obtained in the control study parallels the findings that were reported on PRi trials in the main study. This result suggests that the presence of a two-way interaction effect in the main study cannot be attributed to the introduction of response cues. Please see the supplementary material for details


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This research was supported by a research grant from the Petermax-Müller-Foundation, awarded to B.K. F.L. received funding from the German National Academic Foundation. We thank Mark Vollrath for providing study rooms.

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Correspondence to Bruno Kopp.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the local Ethics Committee at the Department of Psychology (Technische Universität Braunschweig, B-2016-14) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available in the Open Science Framework repository, https://osf.io/cqkhn/.

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Kopp, B., Steinke, A., Meiran, N. et al. Stimulus- and response-based interference contributes to the costs of switching between cognitive tasks. Psychological Research (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1113-5

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  • Task switching
  • Switch costs
  • Stimulus-based interference
  • Response-based interference