Previous work has suggested that conscious error awareness may fluctuate with levels of attention. Here, we explore this relationship by showing that error awareness can be impaired when exogenous support to attentional systems is reduced by decreasing task demands. Twenty participants performed a manual Go/No-Go response-inhibition task optimized to examine error awareness. In one condition (Immediate), participants were asked to respond as quickly and as accurately as possible to each Go stimulus, and in the other condition (Delayed) they were asked to time their responses to the offset of the stimulus, thereby decreasing task difficulty and imposing a more automated response set. As expected, speeding increased the error rate. However, contrary to the expectation (and to participants’ subjective reports) that speeding would impair awareness of performance, we found the opposite to be true: errors were more likely to be unnoticed when the task was easier. We suggest that this tradeoff reflects two qualitatively different types of errors arising from the different cognitive demands of the Immediate and Delayed conditions. We propose that unaware errors reflect pure lapses of sustained attention and are therefore more susceptible to changes in task demands, while aware errors mostly reflect failures to inhibit responses, and are therefore most susceptible to increased response speed.
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We would like to thank Dr. Michael Gormley for his advice on the statistical analysis. We are also grateful to Dr. Paul Dockree for his helpful comments and support.
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