The influence of cue-task association and location on switch cost and alternating-switch cost

Katherine D Arbuthnott, Todd S Woodward
Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 2002, 56 (1): 18-29
Task-switching performance is strongly influenced by whether the imperative stimulus uniquely specifies which task to perform: Switch cost is substantial with bivalent stimuli but is greatly reduced with univalent stimuli, suggesting that available contextual information influences processing in task-switching situations. The present study examined whether task-relevant information provided by task cues influences the magnitude of switch cost in a parallel manner. Cues presented 500 ms prior to a trivalent stimulus indicated which of three tasks to perform. These cues either had a preexisting association with the to-be-performed task (verbal cues), or a recently learned association with the task (spatial and shape cues). The results paralleled the effects of stimulus bivalence: substantial switch cost with recently learned cue-task associations and greatly reduced switch cost with preexisting cue-task associations. This suggests that both stimulus-based and cue-based information can activate the relevant task set, possibly providing external support to endogenous control processes. Alternating-switch cost, a greater cost for switching back to a recently abandoned task, was also observed with both preexisting and recently learned cue-task associations, but only when all tasks were presented in a consistent spatial location. When spatial location was used to cue the to-be-performed tasks, no alternating-switch cost was observed, suggesting that different processes may be involved when tasks are uniquely located in space. Specification of the nature of these processes may prove to be complex, as post-hoc inspection of the data suggested that for the spatial cue condition, the alternating-switch cost may oscillate between cost and benefit, depending on the relevant task.

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