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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that this design does not explicitly require participants to covertly practice the response, nor were participants explicitly instructed to withhold a response. Although there is a broader literature on mental practice (for reviews see: Driskell, Copper, & Moran, 1994; Schuster et al., 2011), this tends to focus on situations in which the participant is explicitly instructed to use mental imagery to practice the tasks. The current experiments, like those of Pfeuffer et al. (2017, 2018), cannot rule out the possibility that participants used mental imagery to practice the tasks during learning blocks where a manual response was not required. However, our primary focus was whether the kind of learning generated in the absence of overt practice can transfer to an altogether novel context rather than the mechanism by which such associations might be formed.

  2. 2.

    Note that Cohen-Kdoshay and Meiran (2007, 2009) found a flanker compatibility effect on the first trials following some simple instructions that described the C–R bindings, suggesting that C–R associations can be formed via instructions alone. However, the specific stimuli used in the subsequent block were also displayed during the instructions phase, so their findings could also be explained in terms of S–R bindings (which was, indeed, the preferred explanation of the authors).

  3. 3.

    Note that Liefooghe et al. (2012) found evidence that S–R associations formed via instruction alone readily transferred between response modalities. However, some recent work from our own lab has found evidence to the contrary (Longman et al. 2018).

  4. 4.

    The capital letters (and lower-case letters) indicate whether the stimuli (s), categories (c), and/or responses (r) of the transfer phase were the same (S) or different (D) from those used in the training phase. Although the responses were always repeated between training and transfer in the current experiment, we have used the same condition coding format as Longman et al. (2018). This was partly for consistency, but also to emphasize the relevant associations learned in each critical condition (SsDcSr = S–R association independent of the classification; DsScSr = C–R association independent of the stimulus).

  5. 5.

    To confirm that replacing these participants did not materially affect the pattern of results, we performed the omnibus ANOVAs described below including all 72 participants. The pattern of results was almost identical—strong evidence of C–R transfer, little evidence of S–R transfer, and no significant interactions with the Modality factor.

  6. 6.

    Note that p > .025, so it just failed to reach significance according to the adjusted alpha. However, the Bayesian analysis (which does not require adjustment) provided very strong evidence that removal of the main effect of Modality from the model would impair its fit.

  7. 7.

    Note that the Modality-by-Category interaction just failed to reach significance according to the adjusted alpha. However, the Bayesian analysis (which does not require adjustment) provided only anecdotal evidence that removal of the interaction from the model would impair its fit. Inspection of Fig. 3 suggests that the accuracy advantage found when the categories were repeated between training and transfer was the smallest in the Enter condition, intermediate in the Speak condition, and largest in the Listen condition. However, these differences were apparently small and unstable.

  8. 8.

    Note that the target sample size was 60 from the outset in Experiment 2, so there was no need to adjust the alpha.

  9. 9.

    Note that participants could not perform a manual response during the Speak and Listen learning blocks, because they had to clench a fist.

  10. 10.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

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Funding

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).

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Cai S. Longman.

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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 (https://osf.io/uw2bm/).

Appendices

Appendix 1

Templates for all categories used in Experiment 1. The category labels were used to provide regular reminders to participants. Each row in the table shows the category labels and templates for the categories that were used during a given learning-test block pair. Labels/templates in the columns marked ‘Same categories’ (Categories A and B) were used during the learning block as well as during the subsequent test block when the categories were repeated from the preceding learning block. Labels/templates in the columns marked ‘Different categories’ (Categories C and D) were only used during the test block for conditions where novel categories were introduced at test.

figurea

Appendix 2

Category labels and descriptions for all categories used in Experiment 2. As in Experiment 1, the category labels were used to provide regular reminders to participants. Each row in the table shows the category labels and descriptions for the categories that were used during a given learning-test block pair. Labels/descriptions in the columns marked ‘Same categories’ (Categories A and B) were used during the learning block as well as during the subsequent test block when the categories were repeated from the preceding learning block. Labels/descriptions in the columns marked ‘Different categories’ (Categories C and D) were only used during the test block for conditions where novel categories were introduced at test.

Same categories Different categories
Category A Category B Category C Category D
SWIMS WALKS SMALL BIG
Usually swims in water Usually walks on land Smaller than a shoe box Bigger than a shoe box
STATIONERY TOOLS MECHANICAL NON-MECHANICAL
An item of stationery A hand tool Has moving parts Has no moving parts
CLOTHES ACCESSORIES METAL TEXTILES
An item of clothing A fashion accessory Made from metal Made from textiles
LIVING MAN-MADE WHEELS WINGS
A living organism A man-made item The item has wheels The item has wings
CUTLERY CROCKERY BLUNT SHARP
An item of cutlery An item of crockery The item is blunt The item is sharp
VEGETABLE FRUIT SOFT CRUNCHY
An edible vegetable An edible fruit Food that is soft Food that is crunchy
MUSIC SPORT PLASTIC WOOD
Musical instrument Sports equipment Made from plastic Made from wood
NEW OLD SOUND LIGHT
The item is new The item is old A source of sound A source of light
SCIENCE ART OPAQUE TRANSPARENT
Science equipment Art equipment The item is not transparent The item is transparent
TOY GAME STRAIGHT ROUND
A toy to play with A game to play The item has straight edges The item has a round edge
FLOATS SINKS KITCHEN BATHROOM
The item floats in water The item sinks in water Commonly found in the kitchen Commonly found in the bathroom
SOLID LIQUID HOT COLD
The item is a solid The item is a liquid The item is hot The item is cold

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Longman, C.S., Kiesel, A. & Verbruggen, F. Learning in the absence of overt practice: a novel (previously unseen) stimulus can trigger retrieval of an unpracticed response. Psychological Research 84, 1065–1083 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1106-4

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