Contextual Adaptation of Cognitive Flexibility is driven by Task- and Item-Level Learning.
Adaptive behavior requires finding, and adjusting, an optimal tradeoff between focusing on a current task-set (cognitive stability) and updating that task-set when the environment changes (cognitive flexibility). Such dynamic adjustments of cognitive flexibility are observed in cued task-switching paradigms, where switch costs tend to decrease as the proportion of switch trials over blocks increases. However, the learning mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, here referred to as the list-wide proportion switch effect (LWPSE), are currently unknown. We addressed this question across four behavioral experiments. Experiment 1 replicated the basic LWPSE reported in previous studies. Having participants switch between three instead of two tasks, Experiment 2 demonstrated that the LWPSE is preserved even when the specific alternate task to switch to cannot be anticipated. Experiments 3a and 3b tested for the generalization of list-wide switch-readiness to an unbiased "transfer task," presented equally often as switch and repeat trials, by intermixing the transfer task with biased tasks. Despite the list-wide bias, the LWPSE was only found for biased tasks, suggesting that the modulations of switch costs are task set and/or task stimulus (item)-specific. To evaluate these two possibilities, Experiment 4 employed biased versus unbiased stimuli within biased task sets and found switch-cost modulations for both stimuli sets. These results establish how people adapt their stability-flexibility tradeoff to different contexts. Specifically, our findings show that people learn to associate context-appropriate levels of switch readiness with switch-predictive cues, provided by task sets as well as specific task stimuli.
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