The Power of Words: On Item-Specific Stimulus–Response Associations Formed in the Absence of Action

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Research on stimulus–response (S-R) associations as the basis of behavioral automaticity has a long history. Traditionally, it was assumed that S-R associations are formed as a consequence of the (repeated) co-occurrence of stimulus and response, that is, when participants act upon stimuli. Here, we demonstrate that S-R associations can also be established in the absence of action. In an item-specific priming paradigm, participants either classified everyday objects by performing a left or right key press (task-set execution) or they were verbally presented with information regarding an object’s class and associated action while they passively viewed the object (verbal coding). Both S-R associations created by task-set execution and by verbal coding led to the later retrieval of both the stimulus–action component and the stimulus–classification component of S-R associations. Furthermore, our data indicate that both associations created by execution and by verbal coding are temporally stable and rather resilient against overwriting. The automaticity of S-R associations formed in the absence of action reveals the striking adaptability of human action control.

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