Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Simon Says: Reliability and the Role of Working Memory and Attentional Control in the Simon Task

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Simon Says: Reliability and the Role of Working Memory and Attentional Control in the Simon Task

Article excerpt

The Simon effect refers to the observation that subjects identify targets (e.g., colors) faster when the irrelevant spatial location of the target corresponds to the location of the response key. Theoretical accounts of the Simon effect typically explain performance in terms of automatic and controlled processes. Furthermore, the relative contributions of automatic and controlled processes are held to change as a function of the proportion of compatible to incompatible trials (compatibility proportion). Data are presented demonstrating that the reliability of the Simon effect, indexed by correlating its magnitude within subjects across blocks of trials, varied substantially as a function of the compatibility proportion. When the compatibility proportion was high, so was reliability. When the compatibility proportion was low, reliability was low as well. The results are discussed in terms of the relative reliability of automatic and controlled processes and the role of working memory and attentional control in goal maintenance.

Reliability is a fundamental psychometric property that needs to be determined in the measurement of any theoretically important empirical construct. Furthermore, its assessment is critical to research in many fields of psychology-for example, to studies of semantic processes in visual word recognition (Stolz, Besner, & Carr, 2005), of aging and memory (Buchner & Wippich, 2000; Salthouse & Siedlecki, 2005; Salthouse, Tom, Hancock, & Woodard, 1997), and of aging and cognitive performance (Madden, Pierce, & Allen, 1993). Determining the reliability of a cognitive process over time is thus part of a complete understanding of how that process functions. Curiously, however, the issue of reliability is typically neglected. This neglect likely stems from numerous sources, but an insidious implicit assumption may well be that cognitive processes are reliable because they produce robust and replicable empirical phenomena (e.g., the Stroop effect, semantic priming). This assumption may also, in large part, reflect the widespread belief that many cognitive processes have automatic components that are expected to unfold in a consistent manner. We consider this point below.

Theoretical Utility

Many cognitive paradigms are explained by viewing their underlying components as reflecting some combination of (1) automatic processes and (2) controlled processes. Automatic is often taken to mean that processing begins regardless of intent, requires no resources, and is ballistic (i.e., once started, it continues until it is finished; see, e.g., Posner & Snyder, 1975). Controlled, in contrast, is often taken to mean that processing is dependent on both intention and attentional resources. Given these conceptions of automatic versus controlled processing, the former is assumed to unfold in a more consistent manner (i.e., to have lower variability) than the latter. Thus, reliability can be taken as an additional feature that distinguishes an automatic from a controlled process, in which the former yields more reliable performance than the latter. For example, in assessing the reliability of memory measures, Buchner and Wippich (2000) argued that "a memory measure should be reliable to the degree to which the instructions and other characteristics of the task serve to limit the variability in the types of processes underlying task performance" (p. 248). The relative automaticity of the component cognitive processes would be one characteristic that should limit variability in task performance.

Recent work by Stolz et al. (2005) has highlighted the theoretical utility of assessing reliability with respect to the relative automaticity of semantic activation in the context of visual word recognition. It is widely assumed that semantic activation (and its subsequent spread) underlying semantic priming occurs automatically (for reviews, see Neely, 1991; Neely & Kahan, 2001). …

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