There Are Limits to the Effects of Task Instructions: Making the Automatic Effects of Task Instructions Context-Specific Takes Practice

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Unlike other animals, humans have the unique ability to share and use verbal instructions to prepare for upcoming tasks. Recent research showed that instructions are sufficient for the automatic, reflex-like activation of responses. However, systematic studies into the limits of these automatic effects of task instructions remain relatively scarce. In this study, the authors set out to investigate whether this instruction-based automatic activation of responses can be context-dependent. Specifically, participants performed a task of which the stimulus-response rules and context (location on the screen) could either coincide or not with those of an instructed to-be-performed task (whose instructions changed every run). In 2 experiments, the authors showed that the instructed task rules had an automatic impact on performance—performance was slowed down when the merely instructed task rules did not coincide, but, importantly, this effect was not context-dependent. Interestingly, a third and fourth experiment suggests that context dependency can actually be observed, but only when practicing the task in its appropriate context for over 60 trials or after a sufficient amount of practice on a fixed context (the context was the same for all instructed tasks). Together, these findings seem to suggest that instructions can establish stimulus-response representations that have a reflexive impact on behavior but are insensitive to the context in which the task is known to be valid. Instead, context-specific task representations seem to require practice.

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