Is Performance in Task-Cuing Experiments Mediated by Task Set Selection or Associative Compound Retrieval?

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Task-cuing experiments are usually intended to explore control of task set. But when small stimulus sets are used, they plausibly afford learning of the response associated with a combination of cue and stimulus, without reference to tasks. In 3 experiments we presented the typical trials of a task-cuing experiment: a cue (colored shape) followed, after a short or long interval, by a digit to which 1 of 2 responses was required. In a tasks condition, participants were (as usual) directed to interpret the cue as an instruction to perform either an odd/even or a high/low classification task. In a cue + stimulus → response (CSR) condition, to induce learning of mappings between cue–stimulus compound and response, participants were, in Experiment 1, given standard task instructions and additionally encouraged to learn the CSR mappings; in Experiment 2, informed of all the CSR mappings and asked to learn them, without standard task instructions; in Experiment 3, required to learn the mappings by trial and error. The effects of a task switch, response congruence, preparation, and transfer to a new set of stimuli differed substantially between the conditions in ways indicative of classification according to task rules in the tasks condition, and retrieval of responses specific to stimulus–cue combinations in the CSR conditions. Qualitative features of the latter could be captured by an associative learning network. Hence associatively based compound retrieval can serve as the basis for performance with a small stimulus set. But when organization by tasks is apparent, control via task set selection is the natural and efficient strategy.

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