Verbal Labeling and Proactive Interference

It is clear that language plays a big role in the performance of many cognitive tasks. For example, in task-switching paradigms subjects may be verbally rehearsing the name of the new task as a way to remember or reinforce the correct response. Accordingly, "articulatory suppression" (even when using something as simple as a tongue depressor) can cause significant performance decrements on many tasks.

In their new article in Psych Science, Kray et al. report on how the act of labeling may influence higher cognition. Specifically, in the first phase of their experiment, they had 96 4-year-old children press a blue key if Ernie appeared, but the green key if Bert appeared. Each of these keys was paired with a different sound, and children were asked to verbally "label" their action after pressing a key, as follows: one group of 4 year olds was asked to say which key they pressed (the blue one or the green one); another group was asked to name the sound they heard after the keypress (bell sound or trumpet sound); a third group was asked to name both the key they pressed and the sound that followed. Finally, a control group used task-irrelevant labels. In the next phase, the children were tested: the experimenters would play a sound, and asked half the children to press the key that was paired with that sound (the consistent condition), and asked the other half to press the key that was not paired with that sound (the inconsistent condition).

The results showed that verbalization had an effect above and beyond control only in one situation: kids who verbalized both the color of the key press (the action) and the sound that resulted (the effect) were less accurate than those who verbalized either the action or the effect alone, but only in the inconsistent condition. The other conditions were not significantly different between inconsistent and condition, nor between the type of labels used. In other words, children who performed other types of labeling (just the action, just the effect, or unrelated labels) revealed no proactive interference from the consistent task. Why might this be the case?

The authors argued that labeling both the action and its effect served to bind these representations strongly together, in a way that was difficult to reverse in the inconsistent mapping condition. This much seems almost incontroversial.

However, it's possible that labels helped in a way that was not specific to language. In other words, the act of labeling both the previous action and it's effect might be considered a form of mental practice. In this case, none of the control conditions are matched for mental practice. Thus it would be important to verify whether it is actually the act of labeling, versus simply "reenacting" the prior trial, that leads to proactive interference further down the road.

Related Posts:
Do Innate Expectations About Causation Reflect "Universal Grammar?"
Labels as An Accelerator of Ontological Development
The Poverty of the Stimulus and the Power of Statistical Learning


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