The Role of Feedback Contingency in Perceptual Category Learning

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Feedback is highly contingent on behavior if it eventually becomes easy to predict, and weakly contingent on behavior if it remains difficult or impossible to predict even after learning is complete. Many studies have demonstrated that humans and nonhuman animals are highly sensitive to feedback contingency, but no known studies have examined how feedback contingency affects category learning, and current theories assign little or no importance to this variable. Two experiments examined the effects of contingency degradation on rule-based and information-integration category learning. In rule-based tasks, optimal accuracy is possible with a simple explicit rule, whereas optimal accuracy in information-integration tasks requires integrating information from 2 or more incommensurable perceptual dimensions. In both experiments, participants each learned rule-based or information-integration categories under either high or low levels of feedback contingency. The exact same stimuli were used in all 4 conditions, and optimal accuracy was identical in every condition. Learning was good in both high-contingency conditions, but most participants showed little or no evidence of learning in either low-contingency condition. Possible causes of these effects, as well as their theoretical implications, are discussed.

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