Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 617–626 | Cite as

Control by association: Transfer of implicitly primed attentional states across linked stimuli

  • Christina BejjaniEmail author
  • Ziwei Zhang
  • Tobias Egner
Brief Report


Although cognitive control has traditionally been viewed in opposition to associative learning, recent studies show that people can learn to link particular stimuli with specific cognitive control states (e.g., high attentional selectivity). Here, we tested whether such learned stimulus-control associations can transfer across paired-associates. In the Stimulus-Stimulus (S-S) Association phase, specific face or house images repeatedly preceded the presentation of particular scene stimuli, creating paired face/house-scene associates in memory. The Stimulus-Control (S-C) Association phase then associated these scenes with different attentional control states by probabilistically biasing specific scenes to mostly precede either congruent or incongruent trials in a Stroop task. Finally, in the Stimulus-Control Transfer (S-CT) phase, the faces and houses from the S-S phase preceded Stroop trials but were not predictive of congruency, testing whether stimulus-control associations would transfer from scenes to their associated face/house stimuli. In Experiments 1 and 3, we found that learned implicit stimulus-control associations could transfer across closely linked cues, and in Experiment 2, we showed that this transfer depended on the memory associations formed in the S-S phase. While this form of transfer learning has previously been demonstrated for stimulus-reward associations, the present study provides the first evidence for the associative transfer of stimulus-control associations across arbitrarily linked stimuli. This work demonstrates how people can learn to implicitly adapt their processing strategies in a flexible context-dependent manner and establishes a novel learning mechanism supporting the generalization of cognitive control.


Cognitive control Control learning Attention Memory 


Author Note

This research was supported in part by NIMH R01 MH 087610. All authors report no conflicts of interest.

Supplementary material

13423_2018_1445_MOESM1_ESM.docx (606 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 605 kb)


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology and NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Center for Cognitive NeuroscienceDuke UniversityDurhamUSA

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