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The dynamic balance between cognitive flexibility and stability: the influence of local changes in reward expectation and global task context on voluntary switch rate

Abstract

Current theories describe cognitive control as a dynamic balance between two antagonistic control functions, namely cognitive stability and flexibility. Recent evidence suggests that this balance between these control modes is modulated by changing reward prospects on the one side and contextual parameters on the other. In the present study, we aim to investigate how both factors interact. In a between-subjects design, we manipulated the context by the ratio of free- to forced-choice trials (80:20, 50:50, 20:80) in a hybrid task-switching paradigm, combining forced- and free-choice task switching. In addition, two reward magnitudes changed randomly from trial to trial. Results showed an overall increase in voluntary switch rate (VSR) with increasing forced-choice frequency, demonstrating a robust context effect. Moreover, the trial-by-trial reward manipulation interacted with this global context effect: with a stability bias (80% free:20% forced), only an increase in reward expectation increased VSR, whereas with a more flexible global bias (in the 50:50 or 20:80 conditions) VSR increased when reward expectation changed and reduced when reward expectation remained high. Taken together, results suggest that the cognitive system is able to adapt to global context parameters and to respond to rapid changes in reward expectation at the same time.

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Notes

  1. In Fröber and Dreisbach (2016a), VSR was significantly lowest when the reward prospect remained high and did not differ significantly between reward remainlow, reward increase and reward decrease trials. But numerically, VSR was highest in the two conditions with a reward change (increase and decrease) and intermediate when the reward remained low.

  2. The data of the free:forced 80:20 and 50:50 group were collected by one of our student research assistants, while the data of the 20:80 group were collected as part of a student’s master thesis project. As a general rule to keep the effort between projects comparable, data collection from 60 participants was required. Therefore, the initial sample size was higher in this than in the other groups.

  3. Such a restriction to only two reward sequences with a free:forced ratio of 20:80 was also done in Fröber and Dreisbach (2016a). There, free-choice trials were either increase and remain high (exp. 1–3) or decrease and remain low trials (exp. 4). The current manipulation with restriction to remain low and remain high has the advantage of a balanced distribution of low and high reward trials across the whole experiment, as is also the case in the other two groups. For a discussion of the consequences of a disproportion between low and high reward trials, see Fröber and Dreisbach (2016a, supplementary materials).

  4. Many participants had single design cells with trial numbers ≤ 5, but we decided to keep as many participants as possible in the sample and to only exclude participants with single cells without data points.

  5. Box plots were created with SPSS based on mean RTs and error rates across all conditions in the extended practice block without reward manipulation. Data points are marked as extreme values when their distance exceeds more than three times the inter-quartile range from the lower or upper end of the inter-quartile range.

  6. Experiment 5 in Fröber and Dreisbach (2016a), where the same VSR pattern was found, used a typical voluntary task-switching procedure with 100% free-choice trials with restricted free-choice by the global instruction to perform each task about equally often and in random order.

  7. Interestingly, Shen and Chun (2011), who first investigated the effect of sequentially changing reward prospect on cognitive flexibility, found that specifically an increase in reward prospect enhanced flexibility as indicated by reduced switch costs in forced task switching. That is, they found a data pattern similar to the present VSR results in the high stability group (free:forced 80:20). An important methodological difference between Shen and Chun and our task-switching studies so far is that the former authors used bivalent tasks and responses, while we used univalent tasks and responses. Bivalent tasks are associated with increased shielding demands, which might result in a generally more stable cognitive mode, where again only the motivational effect of a reward increase is sufficient to promote cognitive flexibility.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by a grant within the Priority Program SPP 1772 from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), Grant No. DR 392/8-1.

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Correspondence to Kerstin Fröber.

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This study was funded by a grant within the Priority Program SPP 1772 from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), Grant No. DR 392/8-1. 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 was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Fröber, K., Raith, L. & Dreisbach, G. The dynamic balance between cognitive flexibility and stability: the influence of local changes in reward expectation and global task context on voluntary switch rate. Psychological Research 82, 65–77 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-017-0922-2

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