Learning in the absence of overt practice: a novel (previously unseen) stimulus can trigger retrieval of an unpracticed response

  • Cai S. LongmanEmail author
  • Andrea Kiesel
  • Frederick Verbruggen
Original Article


Skilled performance is traditionally thought to develop via overt practice. Recent research has demonstrated that merely instructed stimulus–response (S–R) bindings can influence later performance and readily transfer across response modalities. In the present study, we extended this to include instructed category–response (C–R) associations. That is, we investigated whether merely instructed C–R bindings can trigger an unpracticed response (in a different modality) on perception of a novel (previously unseen) stimulus. In a learning-test design, participants had to classify stimuli by comparing them to perceptual category templates (Experiment 1) or semantic category descriptions (Experiment 2) presented prior to each block. During learning blocks, participants had to respond manually, respond vocally, or listen passively to the correct response being spoken. A manual response was always required at test. In test blocks, the categories could either be novel or repeated from the learning block, whereas half of the stimuli were always novel and half were always repeated from the learning block. Because stimulus and category repetitions were manipulated orthogonally, it was possible to directly compare the relative contribution of S–R and C–R associations to performance. In Experiment 1, test performance was enhanced by repeating the C–R bindings independently of the stimulus. In Experiment 2, there was also evidence of an S–R repetition benefit independent of the classification. Critically, instructed associations formed in one response modality were robust to changes in the required response, even when no overt response was required during training, indicating the need to update the traditional view of associative learning.



This work was supported by the European Research Council (Grant number 312445 awarded to Frederick Verbruggen) and by a grant of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (KI1388/5-1, Andrea Kiesel).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

All persons gave their informed consent prior to their inclusion in the study.

Data repository

All raw data files, R scripts (for data analysis), Matlab scripts (for data collection), and stimuli from both the experiments are stored on the Open Science Framework data repository (


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cai S. Longman
    • 1
    Email author
  • Andrea Kiesel
    • 2
  • Frederick Verbruggen
    • 3
  1. 1.Psychology, School of Media, Culture, and SocietyUniversity of the West of ScotlandPaisleyUK
  2. 2.University of FreiburgFreiburgGermany
  3. 3.Ghent UniversityGhentBelgium

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