Alertness and Cognitive Control: Testing the Early Onset Hypothesis

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Previous research has revealed a peculiar interaction between alertness and cognitive control in selective-attention tasks: Congruency effects are larger on alert trials (on which an alerting cue is presented briefly in advance of the imperative stimulus) than on no-alert trials, despite shorter response times (RTs) on alert trials. One explanation for this finding is the early onset hypothesis, which is based on the assumptions that increased alertness shortens stimulus-encoding time and that cognitive control involves gradually focusing attention during a trial. The author tested the hypothesis in 3 experiments by manipulating alertness and stimulus quality (which were intended to shorten and lengthen stimulus-encoding time, respectively) in an arrow-based flanker task involving congruent and incongruent stimuli. Replicating past findings, the alerting manipulation led to shorter RTs but larger congruency effects on alert trials than on no-alert trials. The stimulus-quality manipulation led to longer RTs and larger congruency effects for degraded stimuli than for intact stimuli. These results provide mixed support for the early onset hypothesis, but the author discusses how data and theory might be reconciled if stimulus quality affects stimulus-encoding time and the rate of evidence accumulation in the decision process.

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