Dynamic Adjustments of Attentional Control in Healthy Aging

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In standard attentional control tasks, interference effects are reduced following incongruent trials compared to congruent trials, a phenomenon known as the congruency sequence effect (CSE). Typical explanations of this effect suggest the CSE is due to changes in levels of control across adjacent trials. This interpretation has been questioned by the finding that older adults, individuals with impaired attentional control systems, have been shown to produce larger CSEs in the Stroop task compared with younger adult controls. In 2 experiments, we investigate the generality of this finding by examining how the CSE changes in healthy aging in 3 standard attentional control tasks—Stroop, Simon, and flanker—while controlling for additional confounds that have plagued some of the past literature. In both experiments, older adult participants exhibited a larger CSE in the Stroop task, replicating recent research, but smaller CSEs in both the Simon and flanker paradigms. These results are interpreted as reflecting a pathway priming mechanism in the Stroop task but a control adjustment process in Simon and flanker. Hence, there appears to be different mechanisms underlying the CSE which are engaged based on the type of attentional selection that is required by the task. More generally, these results question the use of the CSE in the Stroop task as a measure of dynamic adjustments in attentional control and highlight the importance of consideration of task-specific control systems underlying the CSE.

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