When stimulus variability accelerates the learning of task knowledge in adults and school-aged children

Kaichi Yanaoka*, Felice M Van 't Wout, Satoru Saito, Christopher Jarrold

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Experience with instances that vary in their surface features helps individuals to form abstract task knowledge, leading to transfer of that knowledge to novel contexts. The current study sought to examine the role of this variability effect in how adults and school-aged children learn to engage cognitive control. We focused on the engagement of cognitive control in advance (proactive control) and in response to conflicts (reactive control) in a cued task-switching paradigm, and conducted four preregistered online experiments with adults (Experiment 1A:
N = 100, Experiment 1B: N = 105) and 9- to 10-year-olds (Experiment 2A: N = 98, Experiment 2B: N = 97). It was shown that prior task experience of engaging reactive control makes both adults and 9- to 10-year-olds respond more slowly in a subsequent similar-structured condition with different stimuli in which proactive control could have been engaged. 9- to 10-year-olds (Experiment 2B) exhibited more negative transfer of a reactive control mode when uninformative cue and pre-target stimuli, which do not convey task-relevant information, were fixed, compared to when they were changed in each block. Furthermore, adults showed suggestive evidence of the variability effect both when cue and target stimuli were varied (Experiment 1A) and when uninformative cue and pre-target stimuli were varied (Experiment 1B). The collective findings of these experiments provide important insights into the contribution of stimulus variability to the engagement of cognitive control.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages26
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Early online date1 Apr 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Apr 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Experimental Psychology Society 2024.

Structured keywords

  • Mind and Brain (Psychological Science)


  • Cognitive control
  • Stimulus variability
  • task knowledge
  • negative transfer
  • children


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