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    Cognitive control of sequential knowledge in 2-year-olds: evidence from an incidental sequence-learning and -generation task

    Kotsoni, E. and Csibra, Gergely and Mareschal, Denis and Johnson, M.H. (2007) Cognitive control of sequential knowledge in 2-year-olds: evidence from an incidental sequence-learning and -generation task. Psychological Science 18 (3), pp. 261-266. ISSN 0956-7976.

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    Under incidental instructions, thirty-eight 2-year-olds were trained on a six-element deterministic sequence of spatial locations. Following training, subjects were informed of the presence of a sequence and asked to either reproduce or suppress the learned material. Children's production of the trained sequence was modulated by these instructions. When asked to suppress the trained sequence, the children were able to increase generation of paths that were not from the training sequence. Their performance was thus dependent on active suppression of knowledge, rather than on a random generation strategy. This degree of control in 2-year-olds stands in stark contrast to 3-year-olds∗ failure to control explicitly instructed rule-based knowledge (as measured by the dimensional-change card-sort task). We suggest that the incidental nature of a learning episode enables the acquisition of a more procedural form of knowledge with which this age group has more experience prior to the onset of fluent language. Research into cognitive control in infancy and early childhood is central to understanding the origins and development of cognition. In addition to establishing that children of a given age have attained a certain level of knowledge or conceptual complexity, it is important to determine the extent of control that they have over this knowledge. Knowledge that cannot be controlled and used appropriately is of little value. One popular test of cognitive control is the dimensional-change card-sort (DCCS) task (e.g., Kirkham, Cruess, & Diamond, 2003; Kloo & Perner, 2005; Munakata & Yerys, 2001; Zelazo, Frye, & Rapus, 1996). In this task, children are asked to sort bivalent cards (e.g., red cars and blue rabbits) according to one of two dimensions (e.g., by color). After successfully sorting the cards by the first dimension, they are asked to switch to sorting by the second dimension (e.g., by shape, not color). Despite responding correctly to questions concerning the game rules, 3-year-olds typically fail to switch the rule by which they sort. By the age of 4 years, children are typically able to switch rules. Explanations of this developmental shift invoke acquisition of a wide variety of executive functions, such as ability to inhibit attentional inertia (Kirkham et al., 2003), ability to modulate one's perspective of a single object (Kloo & Perner, 2005), and ability to integrate hierarchical rule structures (Zelazo, 2004). All such developmental accounts address changes in children's ability to manipulate or inhibit mental representations of the stimulus features when applying rules acquired through explicit instruction. Given that success in the DCCS task depends on an ability to control knowledge acquired through explicit instruction, it is worth asking whether knowledge acquired under incidental instructions might follow a different developmental trajectory. Incidental-learning paradigms are frequently used in the adult learning literature to examine the acquisition of putative implicit knowledge (Cleeremans, Destrebecqz, & Boyer, 1998)—knowledge that is in some way inaccessible to explicit report (Shanks & St. John, 1994). Moreover, incidental learning (e.g., through the observation of peers' and adults' activities) is a central form of early learning, prior to the onset of fluent language (Rogoff, 1990). The serial reaction time (SRT) task involves teaching adult subjects a sequence of motor responses under incidental instructions (Cleeremans & McClelland, 1991; Nissen & Bullemer, 1987). Subjects respond to a series of visual cues by pressing corresponding keys as quickly as possible. The cue presentation and correspondingly the subjects' responses contain sequential structure. However, the subjects are not informed that this is the case. After training, knowledge of the sequential regularities is probed through direct and indirect measures (Jiménez, Méndez, & Cleeremans, 1996). Here, we report on an adaptation of this paradigm that makes it possible to explore 2-year-olds' ability to control sequence knowledge acquired incidentally. To assess cognitive control of knowledge learned in the SRT task, we (Destrebecqz & Cleeremans, 2001) adapted Jacoby's (1991) process-dissociation procedure (PDP) for use with the SRT. The PDP compares performance in two separate tasks: (a) an inclusion task, in which learned material should be reproduced, and (b) an exclusion task, in which learned material should be suppressed. Our adaptation therefore involves asking trained subjects to generate sequences of key presses that either resemble (inclusion) or differ from (exclusion) the training sequence as much as possible. In the exclusion task, subjects must first activate the learned response and then inhibit this and select another response. In this task, unlike in traditional cognitive-control tasks such as the DCCS task, learning and control of the sequential regularities contained in the material are based not on mastering explicit rule structures, but rather on intentionally using incidentally acquired knowledge. In the following experiment, 2-year-olds were first taught one of two six-element deterministic sequences of spatial locations. We then tested their ability to control this acquired knowledge by comparing their generation of sequences under inclusion and exclusion instructions.


    Item Type: Article
    School: Birkbeck Faculties and Schools > Faculty of Science > School of Psychological Sciences
    Depositing User: Sarah Hall
    Date Deposited: 10 Sep 2019 16:37
    Last Modified: 02 Aug 2023 17:53


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