Modes of Executive Control in Sequence Learning: From Stimulus-Based to Plan-Based Control

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The authors argue that human sequential learning is often but not always characterized by a shift from stimulus- to plan-based action control. To diagnose this shift, they manipulated the frequency of 1st-order transitions in a repeated manual left–right sequence, assuming that performance is sensitive to frequency-induced biases under stimulus- but not plan-based control. Indeed, frequency biases tended to disappear with practice, but only for explicit learners. This tendency was facilitated by visual–verbal target stimuli, response-contingent sounds, and intentional instructions and hampered by auditory (but not visual) noise. Findings are interpreted within an event-coding model of action control, which holds that plans for sequences of discrete actions are coded phonetically, integrating order and relative timing. The model distinguishes between plan acquisition, linked to explicit knowledge, and plan execution, linked to the action control mode.

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